We thought we were clever to save money by booking an overnight train from Athens to Thessaloniki. The harsh glare of buzzing lights, the sweaty Greek man snoring loudly beside me, and the smell of unwashed bodies added dramatic effect to this adventure I was on with my two friends, E and Oksana. We exchanged amused glances with each other that said we’d laugh about it all later.
Credit card denied. Cash only.
Combined, the three of us only had enough Euro for one ticket to Istanbul and the closest ATM was down the street. We set out into driving rain, preoccupied by the fact that our backpacks were not waterproof. E proposed we play The Glad Game, a competition to see who could come up with the best reason to be thankful or ‘glad’ about our circumstances. After a few feeble attempts fell flat, we gave in to exhaustion and irritation we felt and returned to buy our train tickets in silence.
This train is sold out.
The woman directly in front of us walked away with the last ticket to Istanbul that night. We were stuck in this northern Greek city on the busiest day of the year without a hostel reservation in a terrible rain storm. There was no choice but to take to the streets to find shelter on a backpacker’s budget. We ducked into the first hotel that advertised vacancy. It smelled stale and looked like it was about to crumble.
At 9 euros per person, we took it.
I was the first to trudge up three flights of stairs and down a long corridor towards our room. I peeked into the bathroom that was to be shared with all of our hall mates. It had a single cracked toilet without a seat, the shower that was out of order, and it smelled faintly of urine. No big deal, I thought. What did I expect at 9 euro a night? Then I walked into our room.
In addition to a broken window, moldy wardrobe, and three single beds, we had at least 300 visitors.
Mosquitoes. A killing spree ensued. Blood smears and bug guts began to color the dirty yellow walls. E and Oksana joined me in the slaughter and when it was all done, we voted to lock our belongings in the wretched hovel and stay out until the mass. However, cafe-hopping in unrelenting rain all day broke us of our resolve and we returned to the hotel to try to sleep for a few hours. After another epic battle with whining bloodsuckers, we pulled the covers over our exhausted bones and fell asleep.
I woke up to a piercing stab between my eyes.
I smashed my hand into my face and looked down at the fresh kill. This was the breaking point. Enveloped in a righteous rage, I flew down the three flights of stairs and inquired at the front desk about the mosquitoes. The Greek clerk in his early thirties winced apologetically and informed me that there was a can of bug spray circulating in one of the floors above. Perhaps I could knock on some doors and try to locate it?
Please call your manager, I said.
A call was made and the clerk hung up defeated. He was sorry. The owner did not care about the hotel or the people, only money. His face creased in empathy and anguish. Call him again, I said. Tell him we will walk out the door in the morning without paying a cent unless he comes up with a better idea. A second call was made and after he hung up, he instructed us to gather our things. He would escort us to a nicer hotel owned by the same man. On the way, the hotel clerk sputtered,
Some day, you will have children and you will tell them you visited a stupid country with stupid people and stayed in….in…. Mosquito Paradise!
We assured him he lived in a beautiful country with many beautiful people. It was not his fault. We just needed to sleep. The new location had a private bathroom and even a traditional Easter bread with a colored hard-boiled egg in the center sitting on a clean bureau.
We spontaneously broke into a new round of The Glad Game with our newfound fortune.
At night, our little trio emptied back into the streets and followed a crowd of people to a nearby cathedral packed with Greek patrons. The low-hum of liturgy ebbed and flowed throughout the ceremony and the light from hundreds of traditional labatha candles flickered just for this special occasion. The Priest and crowd chanted and sang Christos Anesti (Christ is Risen) and turned to their neighbors in joy to offer hugs, kisses and blessings. The bells tolled at midnight and the air was charged with an ecstatic energy. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, continuous rain, or holy smoke wafting through the crowd, but I felt like I was in a dream and I shivered in awe.
In that moment, I knew we were lucky we missed the train.
The next morning after a fitful night’s sleep, inspired by the goodwill and experience from the night before, we returned to the first hotel. The same clerk was sitting behind the reception counter as we had hoped. He acknowledged us with a puzzled and deferential greeting. We placed a hot coffee and a note on the counter and turned to head towards the train station. We heard him laugh and paused once more to see him wave goodbye, holding up our note.
Thanks for rescuing us from Mosquito Paradise!