by Hazel Anna Rodgers
I think in the past I had quite a stressed personality, quite erratic and meticulous without much room for spontaneity within my rigid regime. I still enjoy some level of stress in my day-to-day life, as it motivates me and keeps my mind alert, but I can also relish the peace of stillness and rest; all are vital to cultivating balance in life. My greatest lessons in appreciating the mellow, plodding road of life took place on Perissa Beach in Santorini, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea.
I arrived at night, my Workaway host having come to pick me up from the tiny Santorini Airport mid-evening, but as she brought me down to my home-to-be for the next three months I could still make out the ominous black shadow of the mountains even in the darkness. I was left alone in my room, a small L-shaped basement with brick-red tiles paving the floor and three bunkbeds to choose from. I chose the one closest to the door, and (of course) the bottom bunk. I lifted my pillow to fluff it up, and a swarm of fat black mosquitoes rushed out from around it, each one drifting to another section of the room to hide and wait for my slumber in order to pounce. That night ended up as a killing spree. One after the other I splatted, thwacked, and squished the little critters, each one leaving a stain of blood on whatever implement I used. I spent the rest of the night panicking about hearing one of the little critters whistling around my ear ready to penetrate my rosy skin.
I awoke in the morning with a large, itchy bite directly on my eyelid, and one to the left of my jawline, huge things that I scratched near-constantly for the next few days. I was well-rested but frustrated and disorientated in my new surroundings.
Each day from then on involved gardening the dry, crispy soil ready for planting tomato crops, weeding the road beside the restaurant, preparing the beach for tourists, chopping unbelievable amounts of succulent mangoes, luscious strawberries and juicy pineapples, and cooking vegan meals for myself and eventually for the rest of the volunteers who slowly arrived and took up the rest of the beds in the basement. My routine began to become rigid and obsessive, each morning before work taken up by a long run, and each evening often taken up by a cycle and a swim and often yoga. My weekends off would involve all-day walks, where I would lose myself in the craggy landscape for hours on end. I would listen to podcasts, and aside from small interactions with locals and a growing bond with a man called Labis who taught me all I know about bikes, I was solitary, drifting in and out of my mind and into the striking, dry landscape that surrounded me. Occasionally, a night would be spent differently, and I would allow myself the peace of company and connection with fellow lonesome travelers. But my mind was never still; I couldn’t escape my fixation, my compulsive need for movement, to run away, to leave my body and the world in whatever way possible. Have no doubt, I discovered some unbelievable sights in my cycles, runs, and walks, and the paradise of being alone I still treasure and honor today. The problem was, I couldn’t stop. Tiredness wouldn’t keep my legs from constant movement; my mind had taken over my body.
Two instances were integral in changing the neurosis that my mind was under, and both occurred while I was in Santorini.
I was told to go to the local market to buy toilet roll for the bar and was given a ten euro note to buy it. I left the shop afterwards with some loose change and a five-pound note. It is important to note that the wind in Santorini is ferocious and ever-blowing – for this reason, most crops are low growing, including the grape vines used to make local wine. I cycled back from the shop, and when I got there, I reached into my pocket for the money I had left over. The five pounds was gone. I began to panic, overcome by worry at the prospect of going back pretty much empty handed and increasingly upset about having failed the responsibility I had been given. I searched long and hard through the sharp undergrowth by the roadside, but the money couldn’t be found. I went back empty-handed, sobbing. Anna, one of the owners of the bar, laughed at my tears. Her words still ring in my ears today: ‘Chill, it’s just five pounds.’ Such an insignificant moment, yet one that has resonated with me ever since. All my fear and worry had been founded on nothing except my own obsession and overworked mind.
The second instance was on my last day on the island. My flight was to be at midday, and I woke up early to a sun that was already blindingly hot. Summer was coming, and I was quite glad to be getting away from it. The heat of spring had been quite hot enough for me. I sat on the patio and awaited my ride, which was to be conducted by my other employer, Alex. I waited, waited, and waited. Finally, Yanis, the astonishingly relaxed receptionist for the rooms behind the bar, came over to me and asked why I looked so stressed. I recounted my worry at being late for the plane. He released a deep guttural laugh and said simply:
‘Eh eh it’s not Gatwick, it’s Santorini. Chill man.’
When I had boarded the plane at Santorini airport, which had been delayed for three hours on account of how ridiculously small the airport is, I curled up on my seat and stared out of the window at the dusty runway. I felt calm, even amidst the shouting hoards of English tourists worrying about whether they’d get on the plane at all, even in the hot packed waiting lounge, even now sat in my seat, awaiting the grey skies of England.
Why am I telling you all this? Why should you care?
I know how stressful life is at the moment. I know how uncertain the future is, and how intimidating that can be. But I urge you to try and cultivate some peace in your life, some spontaneity, some rest. Try to appreciate life for its uncertainty, try to laugh at how ridiculous it all is. Life is far too short to worry about your next meal, your next run, or your time management skills. Life is too precious to not smile at how wonderful it is that we’re here at all.
Chill out, and smile.