When I first stepped off of the ferry that took me from Athens to Tinos — a smaller, cheaper alternative to Mykonos — I didn’t realize that I had gone off the beaten path. After all, I was on a route that passed through the isle three times a day. That hardly counts as remote. But then I started noticing the telltale signs of a destination untouched by tourism: menus written solely in the native language, apartments cheaper than a breakfast in crowded Athens, a twenty-minute walk to the beach unencumbered by traffic, loud Americans, or pricey cocktails (or any cocktails, for that matter). And, instead of feeling the thrill of a trail-blazing conquistador, I felt something else entirely: fear. I wasn’t prepared to go off the beaten path in Greece! And, more than that, I felt the eyes of the townsfolk on me as I passed through the gravel roads — as though they could sense by my Athleta skort and Old Navy sandals that I certainly did not belong here.
My fears were confirmed when Alex, our affable hotelier, greeted my friend and I with a disbelieving, “Americans? We don’t see many of you here! Why aren’t you two in Mykonos?”
“We came to Tinos because it was the cheapest island and the closest to the mainland,” I said, honestly.
“You’re not hikers?”
“Hikers?” I asked — we did love to hike, but that definitely did not factor into our hasty Tinos decision.
“There are trails that cross all over the island!” Alex said. “There’s a map in your room.”
And he was right. Tinos, as Alex began to tell us, is locally known for its many hiking trails that crisscross the entire isle. It’s a place that Greeks flock to when they want to break out their boots and trekking poles, which is why we were such a puzzling pair for Alex — we were neither Greek nor did we come here to hike.
But hike, we did.
We wound around towering roads with no shoulders and crept through quiet whitewashed villages, the smell of freshly baked bread keeping us company. We picked our way up ancient goat trails and watched ferries whip in and out of the island’s only port. We crept into abandoned churches and watched a group of cats follow an old man with a leaking bag of fish up the narrow steps of a church. We ate lunch amid a herd of sheep and watched clouds gather and disperse around the tallest point of the isle — a craggy mountain set just across from us.
We had planned to stay in Tinos for four days with the hazy idea of eating and lounging on the beach for the entirety of it. Instead, we found ourselves trekking across the island, encountering hidden villages and admiring the traditional white and blue cottages covered in pink flowers and lazy cats.
Sounds idyllic, no? A perfect end to a perfect travel story. Goodbye and thank you for tuning into my utopian little tale about a romantic little island off the coast of Greece.
Of course, there is another side to my picture-perfect story. A side that people don’t really speak of when they venture to cities without dedicated guidebooks and tourist traps. Perhaps because feeling lost, uncomfortable, stupid, and confused are not emotions that traveling troubadours are keen on admitting to feeling. Perhaps because admitting to feeling lost, uncomfortable, stupid, and confused feels petty when you’re chatting to your jealous friends and family back home who are not on a Greek island getaway in the middle of September. Or perhaps “Got yelled at today in a language that I don’t understand by a woman annoyed by my inability to speak her native language” simply doesn’t make a great Instagram caption.
Whatever the reason, there are decidedly two sides to off-the-beaten-path travel. The magical and the uncomfortable. And, unfortunately for me (because I certainly don’t like feeling lost, uncomfortable, stupid, or confused), one cannot exist without the other.
Whenever I find myself off the beaten path, I am almost always fearful at first. The prospect of the unknown is harrowing and, no matter how many times I am faced with it, I am never the Mindful Yogi Smiling Contentedly While A Tornado Rips Away Everything In Life She Holds Dear Because She Knows That All She Really Needs To Be Happy Is The Knowledge That God Is Within, as I sometimes fantasize about being. No, I am more like the Sleep Deprived Chicken With Its Head Cut Off Ignoring Its Imminent Death In Favor Of Running Around Wildly And Unproductively Until Death’s Grip Finally Tightens Its Cruel Hold.
Then I take a few deep breaths, assure myself that everybody is not actually staring at me, laughing at me, talking about me in their beautiful foreign tongue, and begin my search for the magical.
And, more often than not, I do manage to find it. Whether it’s on the top of a mountain in Tinos, under a garish orange umbrella in Bucharest, or in a pint glass at a loud student pub in London — the magic is always there, waiting for me to get a grip and find it already.