Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Reasonable Road to Athens

Today, on the road to Athens, I realized something.  Over the course of time--even on this very journey--I've actually become a more reasonable person.

This epiphany arose from a couple of decisions I made regarding my journey into Greece.  The first concerned the bus ride down from Albania, which cost 25 €.  I had two options: 

I could take the 7:00 p.m. bus and arrive in the wee hours of the morning.  This would mean:  another uncomfortable night's sleep; nightmare midnight-border checks; 2:00 a.m. bathroom stops; and missed daytime scenery.  But, I’d save one night’s accommodation, which would make up more than half the cost of the bus ride.

The other option was the 7:00 a.m. bus, scheduled to arrive in Athens around 5:00 p.m. (or 6:00 p.m., given the intervening time change).  I’d still have time to find my hostel before dark, and I could see what a large part of Greece looks like on the way.  But, it would mean spending extra money at a time when the becoming-employed-again situation is uncertain.

I went with spending a bit more and taking the daytime ride.  And apart from some bumpy roads, it turned out to be one of the most pleasant, relaxing, and friendly rides of the trip.  Turns out, Greece is beautiful even from the window of a bus, and I now know there’s so much I would have missed in the dark of night.  Plus it’s hard to connect with the fellow local passengers when everyone’s asleep and snoring.  Awake, we had some precious moments.  In short, it was a day—and money—well spent.

Entering Greece.

The Greek border.

My first real Greek salad during our lunch break.
Note:  no mound of potato salad underneath, but a huge hunk of cheese.

Choosing a hostel was more of a struggle.  Greece closely rivals Moscow—and even Luxembourg—in terms of accommodation expense.  As a budget traveler, I usually pick the cheapest hostel with wi-fi, unless some reviewer says the bathrooms are exceptionally filthy and disgusting.  Then I might go with the next best one, which is normally just a $1 more per night.

For Athens, there was a new concern on the budget backpacker's horizon.  I scoured the reviews for the cheap digs in and around an area called Omonia, and none of it sounded good.  Not only are the hostels there purportedly dirty, but some are apparently pretty dangerous as well.  Here are a few, unedited review-snippets from places I’d been considering:

“The area the hostel was located in was extremely dodgy.  We felt uncomfortable walking from the metro in daylight . . . . The staff was actually extremely nice and helpful, but the first thing they warned of us of was walking down the shady street, saying that after 6 we should be careful of getting pushed down a stairway and mugged.”

“Situated in the worst area of Athens. You can’t go out at night without cabbing.  There are hookers on the corner and drug dealers across the street.  There was 0 water pressure in the bathroom shower. The blankets they gave us looked like they came from a diseased warzone.”

 “The hostel is in the red light district, there are also a few junkies about, something you should consider if you’re travelling by yourself or getting in late . . . .”

“Very sketchy part of Athens; drug deals and prostitutes outside the doors.”

“ . . . the receptionist is smoking, watching the Porn video with not much attention and help to customers.”

“The main concern would probably be the area – it’s known as one of the more dodgy in Athens.  We were two fairly rough backpacking type young guys, so no problems, but I'd be more worried for a woman staying alone.”

Like I said, didn’t sound good—especially considering, as referenced in that last comment, that I am, in fact, a woman staying alone.

But the problem was, the next level of hostel up—in the safer neighborhood—would cost upwards of $30 US dollars per night.  I had already heard word on the street that everything else in Greece is quite expensive compared to other parts of the Balkans.  Given that the Dollar is currently being hammered by the Euro, spending $30 on a dorm bed would make living on less than $40 per day close to impossible.  I was hesitant to dip further into the money I would need to restart once back at home.

I did some serious thinking.  I’ve sailed unscathed through a lot of sketch places, I pointed out, to myself.  Surely I can handle some junkies and prostitutes.  Then again, I’m at the end of a long trip.  Even putting aside safety issues, did I want to end my journey in the dregs, with mosquitoes, and dirty blankets, and the receptionist (guy, I presume) watching porn?  I imagined getting shoved down a stairway and thought about how much that would suck, too, particularly if my laptop got smashed or stolen.

I also did some math.  Over eight nights, the difference between safer and potentially-sorry added up to about $88.  Was the risk of getting jacked—or worse—worth saving that?

The Unreasonable Me said:  $88 dollars is a lot of money.

The Reasonable Me said:  Come on.  Be reasonable. 

I went with the Reasonable Me.  I booked the more expensive hostel in the more popular tourist district, right in the prime part of town, in the shadow of the famous Acropolis, and safely away from the undesirables.  And good thing:  just a few days ago, I was told, another poor soul got murdered in Omonia.

Athens Metro map.

Waiting for first ride on Athens Metro.

Yes, reasonable is always better, I’ve decided, even if it does cost extra.  I’ll make it up somewhere, somehow, I’m sure.

And here’s the best part.  Once I was in and able to turn on the charm, a little skillful negotiation on my part got the price of my bed down to $21.15 per night, breakfast included.  That's not much more than the cheapest backpackers in hooker-and-smack-town.  Who knows, I might even make budget with money to spare for a souvenir.  I considered picking up this hypodermic needle as a souvenir--which I spotted on the ground toward the dodgy part of town.  It would, after all, be free and would remind me, in some respects, of Athens.  But then I remembered, I'm a reasonable person now.    

Now, if I could only renegotiate the price of a cappuccino.  A medium costs about $5.50.  We're not in Albania anymore.

More on Greece and Athens to come.