NEWS

Halki, more than just a sliver of an island

Edward, a Briton who is visiting the island of Halki for the fourteenth summer, watches with pride as his 14-year-old son fishes from the balcony of a neoclassical building in Praxithea. Directly below, on the house’s small cobblestone pier, which looks as if it rises up from the lively, blue-green sea that splashes the houses on the shore, is a noisy crowd of local children. Aged four to 14, deeply tanned and scratched from diving into the sea, they swarm up the metal ladder to dive in again and again. Their grandmothers plunge in fully clothed, after biting the gold cross suspended from their neck («because the sea eats gold») and cross themselves, looking up at the sky. Some afternoons Romana, a Ukrainian woman with a superb voice who has lived on the island for years, joins the group. Gangs of children fill the square. The clear water splashes the pier. A wild goat laps up seawater. This is Halki, a scene from a Greece that is disappearing. The islanders stubbornly persist, supporting their birthplace year round. They expect to make money from tourism but they don’t cater to it. West of Rhodes, a mere sliver on the map at just 24 square kilometers, Halki has a proud history. Now the locals are divided over the island’s future. That’s something you notice after a few beers at Costas’s cafe, a gathering spot for fishermen and locals who live elsewhere but spend the summer on Halki. They are all deeply proud of their island. They talk with animation about their people, their simple life, past glories and more recent ones. Musical tradition They agree on the past but disagree about the lack of organized entertainment on the island. With a long tradition as music lovers and revelers, younger Halkiotes feel stifled by the quietness that has overtaken the island in recent years. They recall the parties and dances and songs that used to attract people from Rhodes for a lively evening on Halki. Now there is no nightclub, a development most associate with the two travel agencies which have taken over all the rental accommodation. «We have to find a way of keeping the youngsters on the island,» says Halki Mayor Elego Panagi. «We managed to get a bar going at Pontamo,» a sandy beach just beyond Empoureio. Perhaps Halki will follow the example of Tilos where, on the mayor’s initiative, a bar was set up in the ruins of the old village. Halki has a deserted old village of its own, in the shadow of the Frankish castle. The buildings here tell the story of the people. In the early 20th century, the village had 700 inhabited houses. By 2000, the population of the island fell several thousand to around 400 permanent residents. The town was rebuilt in and around the port of Empoureio, the only settlement on the island. There are no cars on the cobblestones of Empoureio. The only four-wheeled vehicle for public use is Alexandros’s taxi, parked on the beach. Directly opposite is the Keravnos, the only speedboat, which one can hire to visit beaches that are inaccessible by land and rocky islets. That makes trips to the Ai-Yianni monastery and the nearby beaches of Pontamo and Ftenayia expensive. So are trips by sea, but they are accompanied by a eloquent guided tour by the island’s «transport minister.» The sea of Halki has meant love and hope, but has also been a grave, for generations upon generations of islanders. Renowned sponge divers, the Halkiotes brought prosperity to the island from 1800 on. The tiny island once punched well above its weight economically, educationally and culturally, being home to many scientists. Trouble started with the rise of the Young Turks. Compulsory military service and heavy taxation almost paralyzed the island, forcing many residents to go abroad, chiefly to America. But many stayed on and the sponge trade brought great wealth and pain. «Once,» explained Petros, «they buried a poor diver who had died of the bends on a deserted beach in northern Africa. But they had buried him alive. A few hours later he got up and started waving and shouting for his boat, which had set sail. The rest of them saw him and took off, scared of being haunted by the ghost that had suddenly popped up in front of them.» In the middle of each journey, the older islanders recall, a caique would set out with replacement divers, as every journey claimed lives. Now there are no divers left on the island. Besides, the locals say, after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl the only sponges that survived grew in inaccessible places. The Halkiotes make their living from fishing, stock animals and tourism. There are hundreds of wild goats on the island and the only way to catch them is to ambush them on the beach when they come down to drink seawater. Fishing The fishermen gather at Maria’s taverna, which opens at 5 a.m. in all seasons, so they can have a coffee. They cast their nets around 7 p.m. and collect them around 7 a.m. the following morning. In the past, they complain, they caught far more fish. Now most of them barely scrape a living. Some of them drop long lines to maximize their catch. «If you don’t try in places even where the current is strong, forget it,» says Valantis, one of the older generation of fishermen. «Life is difficult these days,» says Babis, who has a tidy caique spread with carpets. In the afternoon, former sailors, most of them widely traveled, bait their nets and share tales of exotic places and strange experiences. Or they prepare the shrimp dish for which Halki is famous. Their children learn the trade from their fathers, even if it means getting up at 5 a.m. to set out on the caiques. «In winter you have to work on getting good marks in school,» Alexandris tells his son Vlahos, 11. Vassilis says the same to his son, Antonis, who is worried about what price his father’s fish with fetch in the island’s small market. Aphrodite and Despina are preschoolers, barely able to stand on the pier and welcome their parents. There are no more than 30 children in primary school and secondary school on Halki. Many islanders say they’re lucky there are enough Albanian children on the island to keep all the classes going. In winter, life is tough. It would be easier if the fishermen had refrigerators to store their catch and tanks for the fuel which, like the drinking water, comes from Rhodes. The mayor is trying to secure funds for that and other projects that are in the pipeline. Some of the tavernas and at least one cafe stay open in winter and the Halkiotes manage to have a good time with roast goat, fresh and smoked fish, and good cheer, which the island has in abundance This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s Sunday color supplement K on September 10, 2006.