An American in Luxembourg

"Welcome in Greece" - Island-hopping & mountain-biking

De Fränz (second rider) exiting a small chapel on the Greek island of Leros.
De Fränz (second rider) exiting a small chapel on the Greek island of Leros.

By Mike McQuaide

It’s safe to say that in recent years, Greece and Turkey have not been blessed with the greatest PR. Economic and political turmoil, terrorist bombings, not to mention a refugee crisis the likes of which hasn’t been seen since World War II, have all plagued this region. For an area that relies heavily on tourism as its life blood, particularly Greece, it’s been hell.

I bring this up because it’s the backdrop of a dilemma I recently faced: that is, is it OK to enjoy oneself in a place where so much suffering is also taking place?

Here’s the story: a few months ago, Inselhüpfen (www.islandhopping.com), a German outfit that specializes in island-hopping and mountain-bike vacations, invited my Luxembourgish friend, Fränz, and I to participate in one of their trips to the Greek Islands. (Fränz is president of biker.lu, Luxembourg’s largest mountain-biking club.)

Using Bodrum, Turkey and Kos Island, Greece as our springboards, we bounced around the Aegean Sea for six days, stopping at various islands to ride mountain bikes and soak up the islands’ history, culture and oh-so-glorious sun. It was truly spectacular and these Greek islands--Kos, Patmos, Lipsi, Leros--probably rank higher on the natural beauty scale than any place I’ve ever been!

Thing is, the Bodrum-Kos Island crossing is also one that thousands of refugees have risked or lost their lives in attempting to escape from Syria and other war-torn countries. Thus, before our trip, all I could imagine was that while we’d be island-hopping aboard a 40-meter motor yacht and playing around on our bikes, we’d be surrounded by desperation: refugees, young and old, clinging to their lives in tiny, overcrowded rubber rafts. I wasn’t at all comfortable with this juxtaposition of First World playtime and Third World fight for survival. It didn’t seem right.

Fränz and I weren’t Inselhüpfen’s only invitees; Bike Agentur, a Swiss company who organized the trip, had arranged for about 20 other folks throughout the bike industry--shop owners, guides, photographers, etc.--to take part. And as it turns out, most of us had the same pre-trip concern: was a trip like this morally OK?

Lost in a field of daisies, somewhere in Greece.
Lost in a field of daisies, somewhere in Greece.
Photo: Fränz Schneider

So with the intent of somehow helping out, contact was made prior to our trip with Kos Solidarity, a Greek volunteer organization that helps feed, clothe and otherwise assist the thousands of refugees who’ve been arriving on Kos Island’s shores. Kos Solidarity proposed that before we leave for Greece, we solicit donations--clothes, shoes, jackets, etc.--and to that end we were able to donate about a dozen backpacks stuffed with clothes and gear for refugees, along with €3,500. (Biker.lu itself came through with €1,500--good on ya’ Luxembourg fat-tire folk!)

During our trip we spent an evening at Kos Solidarity’s headquarters, a storefront that’s a combination office and warehouse, with racks and shelves stuffed with donations for refugees. A trio of volunteers there gave a talk detailing their efforts to help those who end up in Kos, and told harrowing tales of having to retrieve the bodies of those who don’t survive the Turkey-Greece crossing. We were introduced too to a half dozen Pakistani refugees whom the group had helped. (These were the only refugees we saw on our trip.)

When we handed over the donations we’d collected, the Kos Solidarity folks were overcome with emotion and appreciation. One of our group voiced our collective anxiety about visiting the region during the current refugee crisis, but we were told that we needn’t be anxious.

Kos Solidarity volunteers with refugees from Pakistan
Kos Solidarity volunteers with refugees from Pakistan

“We love tourists and we really need them,” one of the Kos volunteers told us. She had long wavy hair and wore a T-shirt that read B.I.T.C.H.: Beautiful, Intelligent, Talented, Charming, Hot.

“We need tourist money,” she continued. “Please tell everyone you know that it’s OK to come to Greece. We need you!”

That assuaged my moral discomfort a bit, especially when that sentiment was echoed by several locals I’d spoken to in both Greece and Turkey.

“Thank you so much for not being afraid to visit this part of the world,” a friendly Bodrum shop owner said to me after I’d purchased a couple scarves from her.

“Just … just thank you!”

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