(insert "life is a journey" cliché here)
Most people remember what they were doing when they heard of the death of Princess Diana. I remember distinctly: I was at a market stall on the Greek island of Paros, fingering a necklace, deciding whether I liked it enough to buy it.
One of my travel buddies, Dave the Cop from Sydney, rushed up to me and broke the news, given to him by his mother during a phone call home. At that point in time, Princess Diana was still alive but in a critical state in hospital. I handed over my money. I wasn’t in love with the necklace but knew it was something to mark the moment. From now on, it would be my Princess Di pendant.
A small group of us, fresh off a London-Athens Contiki tour, were travelling the Greek islands together. As we re-grouped that day, the news was passed amongst us; yet at this time that the world was blanketed in media saturation, we found it incredibly hard to get informed. English newspapers on Paros were three days old and still showed Diana and Dodi waterskiing. Cyber cafes—the 1997 backpacker’s only online portal—were absent. News bulletins were all in Greek. One of our party, having her hair cut, asked her hairdresser to translate. Answer: “Your princess, she dead.” End of story. We phoned our homes on the far side of the planet to find out more.
A side note to this story: we’d arrived at the port of Paros a couple of days earlier and were enticed by a friendly chap with a ute to come and stay at his holiday units. We piled onto the ute and were shipped up the hill to some pleasant units, only to find the price of the rooms had now doubled. ‘What??’ we said, and prepared to collectively walk. ‘Ok ok!’ Begrudgingly, the price was lowered to the port price. But now we ‘must hand over our passports as security’ for the length of our stay? Again, we rose as one, shouldered our backpacks and set off down the road to find alternative accommodation. Lo and behold, this requirement was suddenly dropped. I mention this as I’m sure the same practice goes on today, world-wide. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied if you’re not happy with arrangements; if possible arrive early enough in the day that seeking alternatives is still an option, and never donate your passport.
Dave the Cop from Sydney had won a sum of money in Monte Carlo, so he hired a jeep to drive us around the isle of Paros. We visited pristine little churches packed with Byzantine-style icon paintings; we passed through a tiny village called Lefkes, and a place where grooves are worn into the coastal rocks from the entry and exit of ancient fishing boats. We drove into a sunset, picked up a Dutch hitchhiker and stopped at a small taverna for ouzo and sardinas. As we drove, I (dangerously) stood up, whooping and holding onto the roll bars, feeling terribly alive, and aware of the poor dead princess. Have you ever noticed how alert your senses become in the presence / awareness of death?
During that week or so between Princess Diana’s death and funeral, our group moved on to Santorini, and after a few heady days in the sun, split and went in different directions. I was, at last, tired of the group. Ready to strike out on my own, I ferried to the island of Naxos and booked into a cheap backpacker dormitory at Naxos Camping.
While there, I joined a group of backpackers at a viewing of the royal funeral, having found a sunny beach-side bar that was going to be screening the funeral live. In the lead-up, we’d continually failed to tap into the media saturation (something I was thankful for later). Asking Greek locals to tell us the news inevitably resulted in “Oh yeah, she died. But we got the 2000 Olympics!!!” Yes Greece was a happy nation this week, with Athens being chosen as the 2000 venue. Princess Di was secondary news, unimportant. There was a party vibe on the island, with the locals in an extremely good mood.
And in the middle of it all, on that sunny day of cheerfully raised voices, we sat at this outdoor bar, gloomily drinking beer in the sun, saying nothing much while we watched the procession through the streets of London, the young princes walking with their mother’s coffin. It was odd paradoxical experience. Later, back at the campsite’s swimming pool bar, morose drunkenness came to a head as an Australian backpacker poured scorn on a hat worn by member of royal family – and a British couple, who’d been lazing nakedly by the pool all week, leaped to their feet with clenched fists in patriot defense.
I dropped quietly into the pool and swam away. It was time to leave the Greek Islands.