Lost in the Odyssey

So sing to me, I begged the Muse one Friday evening in May, or, hey, you know what? Just send me an intercity bus — I’ve gotta get out of here.

“Here” was the seaside town of Neapoli, at the southeastern end of the Peloponnesian peninsula of Greece, where nearly two weeks of island-hopping from the Turkish coast across the Aegean Sea had come to a sudden and maddening halt. From Cape Meleas — the last location Odysseus himself recognized before the North Wind drove him into the monster-ridden lands of myth — all I had to do was hop a bus or two to the port of Patra, and from there a ferry could take me, at long last, to Ithaca, the place Odysseus called home.

In Neapoli, however, there were no buses until morning, and I had no choice but to spend the night in this cheerful, if sleepy, seaside town. Even a day or two earlier, I wouldn’t have minded. In fact, for the previous 10 days I’d been delighted by the capricious whims of bus and ferry schedules. But I was due to fly home to New York from Athens in two days, and now this delay was unbearable.

As I numbed disappointment with ouzo at a waterfront restaurant, I noticed something unusual on the sidewalk before me: a penny-farthing, one of those 19th-century bicycles with an enormous front wheel and tiny rear one. The owner, it turned out, was Jim, a 20-something hairdresser from Athens who was sitting nearby with his girlfriend, Chara, a schoolteacher. They were a sweet couple, definite hipsters, and I smiled when they asked me, as had practically every Greek I met on my journey, how I’d wound up here.

“I’ve come from Troy,” I said, “and I’m trying to get to Ithaca. Like Odysseus: no map, no guidebook, no route, no Internet, no hotel reservations.”

Thus began a tale I’d been telling, and adding to, ever since I’d begun my Odyssey in Turkey outside the city of Canakkale, where ancient Troy was located and, beginning in the late 19th century, unearthed.

But Troy was not where I wanted to linger. It was, for both myself and Odysseus, a starting point. My plan was not to follow the hero’s exact route — it stretched, some say, as far as Gibraltar, and was mythical in any case — but to stumble in his footsteps and try to get a glimpse into his psyche as he tried and failed and tried again to reach Ithaca, a mere 350 miles away as the crow flies, off the west coast of Greece.

Or maybe that’s the wrong way to put it. For Odysseus has no psyche, not in the modern, literary sense. One of the founding works of Western literature may be a travel story about getting lost, but apart from the image of heartbroken Odysseus crying on the shores of Calypso’s island, Homer rarely portrays his hero’s disconnection and desperation.

How does that lostness feel, I wanted to know, especially in Greece, where the lonely spaces between rough and empty islands are balanced by an unmatched reputation for hospitality? So, with 11 days for the journey — Odysseus took 10 years, but my wife, Jean, is less patient than his Penelope — I left Troy to find out.

Immediately, I encountered uncertainty. Several Greek islands — Limnos, Lesbos, Chios — lie close to Turkey, but no one was sure when, or if, ferries were running. And that was even before Greece’s austerity measures prompted port blockages, transit strikes and sometimes violent demonstrations in Athens. (The ferries, however, have kept running.) The Canakkale tourism office suggested a three-hour bus south to Ayvalik, where I might find a ferry to Lesbos, and if that didn’t work, I could go farther south, to Izmir, alleged birthplace of Homer himself, and get the ferry to Chios. So, while Odysseus had sailed north with his 12 black ships to raid the lands of the Cicones, I went the other way.

Unlike Odysseus, I got lucky. In Ayvalik, a lovely Turkish town with a jumble of old streets at its center, ferries were leaving for Lesbos.

The two-hour ride was to be a typical one. Inside the ship, whose homey décor had not been updated in a couple of decades, about 100 families, couples and groups of friends mostly kept to themselves, snacking on sweets packed for the trip. This was a modest ferry; other, larger ones would have free Wi-Fi and show reruns of “Friends” dubbed into Greek. Outside was more exciting: the water flat and sparkling with golden-hour light, small sailboats and fishing skiffs cruising near shore, tiny islands silhouetted by the setting sun.

MATT GROSS, the former Frugal Traveler, writes the “Getting Lost” series for the Travel section. He is writing a book about independent travel, to be published by Da Capo Press.

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