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August in Kalymnos

Eight days in Kalymnos of Dodecanese, to live the celebration of Panagia Kyra Psili on August 15 and meet the local people and the traditions of the island.

The first time I visited Kalymnos island was maybe four years ago. I was staying on the nearby island of Kos and the friend I had there, wanted to show me a nice beach on Telendos island. In order to visit Telendos we had to go first to Kalymnos, drive through the island to the other side and take the ferry.

This short drive was enough for me to like the island and want to go back again sometime. This August was the time. I learned about the celebration of the monastery of Panagia Kyra Psili (Mary the tall lady) on August 15, so this was a good chance for me to go visit the island.

Kalymnos is world-famous for its sponge divers, so I really wanted to meet at least one. I have been told that they were supposed to be difficult-to-reach people, but I had a different experience. As soon as I arrived, I met Antonis after five minutes. He was selling his sponges on his boat by the harbour. He used to be a sponge diver, but now he retired.

I asked him whether he had a warehouse where we could go together. He was surprised and told me that there was not much to see and photograph in his warehouse and gave me directions to more modern ones. I already knew I wanted to see his warehouse more than before. However, I took the time to go and see the modern warehouses, which I didn't care for too much, photographically speaking. Just by chance, I saw Antonis wandering around and bumped into him. I asked him again if we could go to his warehouse. It was not far away, so he said well why not, let's go.

As I had expected, his warehouse was a feast for my eyes. Just what I had in my mind. I wasted no time and asked him to take his photo.

Antonis Kampourakis at his warehouse. Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
Antonis Kampourakis at his warehouse

The next place I would look for information regarding the culture of the island and folklore would be the Lyceum of the Hellenic Women. This is an organization in Greece that tries to preserve folklore. Fortunately, it was quite easy to find in Kalymnos as they keep the Museum of folklore located in the capital of the island, Pothia.

I went inside, asked for information, and was able to talk to the president on the phone. She introduced me to Xanthippe, the manager of the wardrobe who could help me find a traditional outfit and some girl to wear it and make some images.

I have tried to find a girl myself but in the end, she couldn't be there on the same date that Xanthippi could help me, so Xanthippi, having only been notified on very short notice that I had no girl for the shooting, asked her daughter who agreed to help. So we met with Xanthippe and her daughter Christina. She got dressed and we made some nice pictures in a few places that I had found around the island.

After we finished with the shooting, Christina took me back to her home, which was a really nice place to make some extra images, as the home looked really traditional and authentic.

Her mother was really hospitable and offered me coffee, fruits, and sweets. I really enjoyed the time and met some really nice people. I would be experiencing more of their hospitality as you will read later on.

Christina in the traditional urban dress at her home Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
Christina in the traditional urban dress at her home.

One other day, I met Antonis's granddaughter at his boat, she was helping him out with the sponge sales and she would keep their boat shop when Antonis was away.

I met and talked to her and asked her if she had any traditional outfits herself. She said that she did and that she would also be happy to pose for a few shots.

I took her to some other places I had spotted on the island to make images and even inside an old church that looked really nice. Girls in Kalymnos are not accustomed to wearing traditional clothes around the island, so both of them were a bit shy. However, everyone around really liked the view of a traditionally dressed girl greeting us along our path.

An old lady greeted us in a village and I was really curious to see her home, so I asked if I could go inside and see the place. She happily asked me in.

At last, the time came when I met a real sponge diver, Dimitris. He owns a diving school located at Therma beach.

He of course uses modern equipment for diving. The only difference in Kalymnos is that they use an air compressor on the boat, instead of oxygen bottles for their air supply. They are tied to the compressor through a flex tube from which they can breathe underwater.

This is particularly useful as they spend a very long time underwater.

Dimitris however owns a traditional diving suit. This is what I had in mind for the Kalymnian divers. I talked to him and he agreed to wear this suit to make some images. The initial plan was to go to the shipping yard to make the images, but after I realized the weight of the suit was a total of maybe 50kgs and that he needed two more people to help him put the suit on, I knew that this plan was not feasible, given the tight schedule of Dimitris.

We managed to make some images nearby his school, however.

The morning of August the 14th came. On this night a great celebration takes place all over Greece. A celebration that personally I find a bit oxymoron. You see, the occasion is the memorial day of Mary's, Jesus' mother, death (Assumption of Mary).

You see, people need to celebrate and get together. So the cause justifies the means. So the fact that Mary went to Heaven after the end of her earthly life is looked upon with optimism.

I have done a small research and heard about all the celebrations around the island and even at the islands nearby. So the two celebrations that sounded the best to me were the one that takes place at the Monastery of Panagia Kyra Psili and the one that takes place at the Panagia of Telendos island.

As I put my money on the first one, I decided to wake up in the morning, cross over to Telendos, have my morning greek coffee and look around and decide whether I was to stay there or go back to Kalymnos and visit Kyra Psili.

Telendos looked really nice, I had my morning coffee, went for a nice swim, and had lunch, but decided to visit Kyra Psili in the end.

Waiting for the ferry to Tenendos island Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
Waiting for the ferry to Tenendos island.

The road to reach the path to the Monastery was laid with asphalt or cement all along but it was rather difficult, as it is steep and narrow and the one side is a very steep cliff with no protection against a car falling over. But if you go slowly and carefully is not a big deal. We are used to such roads in many places in Greece. I thought, however, that some praying along the way, would do no harm.

Once you reach the path, you have to leave the car and walk for less than a kilometre to reach the monastery. The road is uphill but not too difficult. The summer heat only makes it harder, especially if you decide to go during the day. On that day you will surely meet more people going to the Monastery and even some work donkeys taking supplies.

Hiking to the Monastery Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
Hiking to the Monastery.

When I reached the Monastery, the priest had already been there and people had started to gather. I took some time to look around the monastic cells, the small chapel that was inside the rocks of the cliff, but also the main church that was built in the yard of the Monastery.

At one point inside the cliff, there was a small and narrow cave where water was dripping at its end making a small pond. Pilgrims would squeeze themselves inside to go and drink some of the water as they believe that it has some miraculous properties.

The small cave inside the Monastery Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
The small cave inside the Monastery.

The evening Mass had started very late in the night, much later than standard times around Greece. I think it was around nine to ten at night, compared to five or six that most evening Masses take place.

They had a long Mass and then carried out a eulogy at the small chapel inside the cliff and the two ceremonies finished at around eleven to half-past eleven as I remember.

The celebration soon started with traditional instruments (bagpipe and lute) and people started dancing. Many of them had brought mattresses, blankets, and sleeping bags, either to get comfy or even to spend the night at the Monastery.

The surreal part of the celebration was that just outside the Monastery's door, there was a cart with grilled souvlaki and sausages that had a small stereo speaker, playing dance music. Apart from having music that had nothing to do with tradition and this beautiful place that we were in, the Orthodox are not supposed to be having meat on this day as there is a fast. So I would call this the cart of anarchy :-)

I may have sinned on that night, but having the souvlaki and a beer under the beautiful starry sky was an experience to remember.

I had spent this night in the car by a beach as I had found no place to stay until the next day. Next time I must remember to get mosquito repellent!

The starry night sky outside the Monastery Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
The starry night sky outside the Monastery.

One of the following days, I found this nice tavern next to Pothia's port. I wanted to go inside as there was a big interesting folklore painting on the wall with the city of Pothia and a huge sponge diver at the front looking like a spirit in the sky, overlooking the city.

Inside, there was Nikitas, the owner of the tavern with an interesting tattoo of St. George on one of his arms. I met with him and heard his story.

It was easy to spot his tattoo as he had no shirt on, while he was working and preparing the place for the evening. I asked him to make a coffee for me and got his trust gradually. When I first got inside, he didn't want to have his picture taken.

After some time he felt much better so I took some pictures of him and his interesting place.

Nikitas at his place Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
Nikitas at his place.

She was kind enough to make a traditional dish "Fylla", which is stuffed vine leaves with minced meat and rice, and also posed in her kitchen and outside her home for a picture.

I have also met her neighbour Irene, who is a captain, and today even at her age of over 80 she goes and maintains her fishing boat. A very good example of a strong woman.

Finally, I made a portrait of Xanthippi's husband, Dimitris, who used to be a vessel accountant and really amazed me with his generic encyclopedic knowledge. I made his portrait when he was sitting in his chair, next to the piano where he takes his greek coffee after lunch.

I also tried to play the piano, but it was off-tune so I didn't manage to hold one. Even so, I guess out of politeness, I enjoyed the family's applause and the curtain closed in Kalymnos.

At least for now.

Dimitrios Kouremenos at his place Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
Dimitrios Kouremenos at his place.

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