Stealing Antiquities

In 1911, Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu. “Discovered.” The professional adventurer was in Peru on commission from Yale University when he heard locals tell tale about a nearby dead city. Together, Bingham and a local child guide climbed through the countryside, the boy proudly showing off his homeland to the interesting visitor.

When they reached Machu Picchu, Bingham invariably saw dollar signs flashing behind his eyes. He more-or-less shoved the child aside while proclaiming, “I discover thee,” and then he and Yale proceeded to scavenge the ruins for anything not bolted down.

Oddly, this was done with the consent of the Peruvian government, but also with the clear understanding that the items would be returned to Peru at any time they wished.

Eventually, Peru decided they wanted their treasures back. But, as is the case in many deals done between two parties of greatly disparate wealth and resources, Yale simply ignored them. So, in 2008, Peru sued Yale for the repatriation of their antiquities. Yale basically responded with the air-tight defense of “finders, keepers.”

The two parties had many formal talks and, in time, reached an agreement. Starting in 2010, the artifacts were returned to Peru.

Yale cautioned that this was a unique case and should not set a precedent for returning stolen goods to their original owners. (Those are my words, not Yale’s, but I assure you the sentiment is basically the same.)

I have never been to Peru, but I have been to Greece, which was likewise plundered for its treasures by enterprising, professional explorers from wealthier nations. I remember visiting the museum on the Acropolis, excited to see the preserved antiquities of the area. Instead I saw, over and over again, artists’ representations and copies of items that had been usurped by the British Museum.

The majority of the Parthenon’s frieze sits 2000 miles away in the BM in England. There, the antiquities are called “Lord Elgin’s Marbles” or the “Elgin Marbles,” a name which reveres the 19th-century nobleman who had overseen the “acquisition” of the items.

In the Acropolis Museum, however, the marbles were not rescued from an undeveloped society by a heroic Englishman. No, they were stolen by “Elgin’s henchmen.”

Picture of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece

The Parthenon with missing frieze

As Greece mulls suing the British Museum as Peru did Yale, I come to the point of this post: Antiquities belong to their people, not corporations nor universities nor other countries who happened to be quick and crafty enough to sneak priceless items across their borders. Yes, in a larger sense the antiquities also belong to you and me and everyone else in the world, but this isn’t altruism. This is theft.

Just give Athens back its frieze already, BM. And the rest of you organizations proudly displaying obviously stolen goods, do the right thing and return them to their rightful homes.


Marooned in Mykonos

Picture of one of the Cyclades islands seen while on the ferry from Athens to Mykonos

The passing Cyclades

The Cyclades are a barren place. I’m on a slow ferry from Athens to Mykonos, and I’m struck by the lifelessness of the jagged chunks of rock we pass. The happy white-and-blue buildings only seem to highlight the blackness of the land below.

Mykonos’ harbor is less active than I expected, a few small fishing vessels darting out to sea, a flock of pelicans searching the beach for snacks. A row of large windmills overlooks the harbor, the blades turning at a leisurely island pace.

Picture of the harbor at Mykonos, Greece

Mykonos harbor

Picture of pelicans and fishing boats along the harbor at Mykonos, Greece

Along the harbor

It’s off season for the holiday hotspot. My friends and I are staying across the island on Paradise Beach, normally an alcohol-infused party destination, but now the area is completely dead. Our room costs €100 less a night than high-season prices, and we have the beach almost completely to ourselves. The only downside is that we’re stuck taking taxis or the infrequent bus between the beach and the town, Chora. There are endless fields of rocks and lizards on the dusty road to Chora, but not much else.

In the town, it’s almost all locals, and many shops are closed for the season. Some townspeople are taking advantage of the tourist lull to repaint their houses and businesses the brilliant white so indicative of Greek architecture.

Picture of the white buildings and walkways along Mykonos, Greece

In Chora

One white wall has been vandalized by thin, black words: “You lika da Greek?”

The beach bar is closed, so we try to find some drinks in town to take back. A corner grocer is stocked with giant, used water bottles that some clever person has refilled with homemade wine. There are two options: white or red. Why not? We get one of each.

We crack into the wine back at the beach. It’s…not good, but we press on regardless. That night, we sit next to the water and stare at the stars while locals hold a party lit by torch light at the other end of the beach. It is so good to just relax.

Picture of Paradise Beach in Mykonos, Greece

On the beach

The next day we go swimming in the warm, blue sea. Several yards out there is a coral shelf that I sit on while my friends continue to swim. The waves knock me around against the breaker, and I enjoyed letting the water sweep me forward and back again. It’s not until later that I notice the coral has scratched the hell out of my thighs and wrists. Soon, giant, painful welts have risen all over my body. (I’m sure you’re disappointed, but I didn’t take a picture of the fiendish things.) When I take a shower, the pelting water against my skin brings tears to my eyes.

Back in town, I try to explain to a pharmacist what has happened, but he doesn’t speak English. (And, to my infinite shame, I don’t speak Greek.) I show him the red bumps on my wrist. His eyes widen as he immediately hands me a tube of hydrocortisone. The bumpy return ride to the beach is excruciating as the seat bangs against the back of my thighs. When I am finally able to coat my skin with cream, I almost cry in relief. (The stinging will eventually go down, but the patchy redness will not fade for more than six months. I find out much later that the culprit was fire coral, which is not coral at all but rather a relative of jellyfish. Beware the coral shelf at Paradise!)

We are all disappointed when our time at Mykonos comes to an end. Despite new lesions and the lingering effects of bathtub wine, the island undoubtedly was the highlight of the trip.

You lika da Greek?” I guess I do.

Breaking Bread

After learning how to correctly pronounce it, the only food I want in Athens is a gyro. The fact that I don’t eat lamb is not going to deter me. My friend and I find a bustling eatery, and I order the sandwich while explaining I don’t want the meat. The cashier seems to understand and takes my money. When my gyro arrives, I cautiously open it to ensure no animal parts have made their way into my meal.

It’s filled with french fries.

That’s odd, I think. But I then settle on the bursting flavors of fresh vegetables and dill, and don’t give the fries much attention.

The next time we’re hungry for gyro, we find a new restaurant. I again explain that I want a vegetarian gyro, and the cashier again seems to understand. When I bite into the piping hot sandwich, though, I encounter something strange.

It’s filled with french fries.

I love my carbs, and so I don’t complain that ‘vegetarian’ is apparently Greek code for ‘salty, greasy slabs of potato.’ I mentally tuck away that knowledge for the next veg friend who travels down the Aegean way.

Years later, I am reminded of this experience when ordering a vegetarian salad in a Greek restaurant in Munich. This time, rather than fries, my plate is filled to the brim with tomatoes. Tomatoes=ketchup=fries? I guess I’ll never know. 

Have you had an unusual food substitution while abroad?