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Agia Paraskevis
Drunken Horses and Dehydration

Agia Paraskevis, Lesvos, horseracingAgia Paraskevis is a large village. They say it is a rich village, that the people own the best farmland not just in Lesvos but on the mainland too. There is a large school, the largest I have seen on any island, that looks like it popped out of ancient Athens, and lots of beautiful mansions with gardens, and the main street is cobblestone with one cafe and restaurant after another, leading to an agora full of small shops. The village is not built on a mountainside like Vatousa and Xidera but on a hill and is surrounded by fields of grain and grass and there are horses. Lots of horses. Even within the town every empty lot has a horse in it. Beautiful horses, many that look like thoroughbred racehorses, with hardly a mule or a donkey to be seen. And the men are big, like Texans, and they are dark, like gypsies, and they wear cowboy boots and have muscles and tattoos, and the young women do too, wearing skintight bluejeans, knee high cowboy boots and dyed blonde hair. At least they did the day we went, which was the 3rd of July, the third day of a four day festival (panagiri) celebrating Agios Haralambos.

Agia Paraskevis, horseracing, LesvosThe festival kicks off on Friday night, then on Saturday they slaughter a bull and boil him with wheat or barley or some grain in a giant pot to make something called kisket and then everyone gets drunk and parties through night, going home at 11am to rest a few hours until the horse races begin on Sunday at 5pm or thereabouts. We arrived at 4pm to a town that looked like the party had ended and we had missed it. The streets were littered with broken glass, and the stands of the gypsies and street venders were covered with tarps and there were just a handful of people seated among thousands of empty tables and chairs that lined the streets. So we left and went to Kaloni to eat a late lunch. But we returned at 5:30 to find things a little more lively, and a dozen or so horses and riders hanging out by the cafes or walking up the cobbled streets. We sat in a cafe to watch the show, trying to get some kind of impression of what we were going to see. Would the horses be galloping through the paved village streets? There was one spirited horse that seemed very restless, rearing up a few times and making a lot of noise every time another horse passed by. The guy who owned him had to order a bottle of ice-water from the cafe and throw it on his penis to calm him down.(Would I make this up?) Andrea became nervous and wanted to move further off the street where we would be safer. But it did not seem so dangerous because there were so few horses and they would walk past us and disappear. Finally we asked the waitress if the race was going to be right here. She didn't know. Then we asked another and she said they were being held up the street on a dirt road on the edge of town, so that's where we went.

In Vatousa they say the people in Agia Paraskevis are crazy. They drink too much ouzo. They say the horses are crazy too for the same reason. They give ouzo and whiskey to the horses to make them more wild and run faster and then they get drunk and ride into the cafeneons. Someone told us that they had been in a cafe and a horse and rider came in and reared up like Roy Rogers on Trigger, and proceeded to demolish tables, chairs, plates, glasses and a few unlucky people. Some people who like the excitement go to the Festival every year and some go once and swear they will never go back again.

horseracing, agia paraskevis, lesvosForget everything you know about horse-racing when you come to Agia Paraskevis. This is not Belmont or the Kentucky Derby or anything close, except for the fact that they are racing horses. There is no circular track. This is like drag-racing but with horses. It's a long straight dirt road bordered by stone walls and fields, that is about a kilometer long starting out flat and goes up a small hill to the finish line. When we arrive the riders are doing practice runs and it is obvious that it takes a lot of concentration to keep these horses going in a straight line because these horses are high-strung and wild, maybe even drunk. We find a spot where a paved street meets the dirt road, an opening where there is a crowd standing, and probably the worst place to stand because the riders have to fight to keep the horses from turning off the track because as anyone who has ridden a horse knows, a horse wants to go home where he can hang out and eat grass and talk to his horse friends. He does not want to have to run up a hill at full speed racing other horses he does not know. And on this paved road we were standing on were all the pick-up trucks and the trailers that had brought the horses to Agia Paraskevis from around the island, as well as the fields where the local horses grazed. The natural inclination of the horses, running full speed, was to make a right hand turn towards home, be it by trailer or on foot, and the job of the rider was to keep the horse going straight and not make that right hand turn.

horserace, agia paraskevis, lesvosOf course this was not obvious to us until suddenly the fastest, biggest horse in the race charged into the crowd with its rider, who unlike everyone else was bareback, skinny with glasses and looked more like the guy who fixes my computer than one of these Lesvos cowboys, desperately trying to control him. The horses feet hit the pavement just as Andrea had walked over to join Amarandi and I, and the crowd parted like the red sea. The horse was on top of me and I had a moment to realize that I was going to be run over by this large animal, maybe killed or worse. But whether it was because I moved so fast, or the horse did not run into something as big as me, he skidded fast and fell, and almost instantaneously was up again and back on the track. I looked around and everyone was OK, but Andrea was yelling that we were almost killed and we should get the hell out of here. Amarandi and I looked at each other and began laughing. "That was Great!!!!" It was like going on a terrifying amusement park ride and when it was over wanting to do it again. Yeah, OK we were almost killed. These things happen and supposedly every year at these horse races somebody does get injured and people have gotten killed which is why I would not really recommend that a happy tourist family spend the afternoon at the races in Agia Paraskevis. But Amarandi and I wanted to go right back where we were and keep watching and be ready for the next horse that came barreling through.

horseracing, agia paraskevis, lesvosAndrea however felt differently and stood about twenty feet back from the crowd next to the cantina truck that was selling hot dogs and souvlakia. Meanwhile the police and a soldier came over and was pleading with the crowd not to stand here because it was dangerous. But as far as I could tell anywhere was dangerous unless you could somehow get over the barbed-wire fence that lined the stone wall along the road, which some of the younger people had managed to do. But the people standing on the road did not want to move because as far as they were concerned, despite the danger these were the best seats in the house and there were all ages here, even little children. Too keep Andrea from having a stroke I climbed up on the wall behind a car and made Amarandi come as well. It was a lousy view and we would just see the horses flash by but then we could see them going up the hill as they raced two by two. Some people in the crowd could tell when a horse was trying to get to the road that led home by the way its rider was fighting to keep him on the track, and they would shout akri, akri and the crowd would surge back as the horses raced by, the rider beating it with a stick. We saw a few more races and then decided to go home, well Andrea decided, because she was not having very much fun. Amarandi did not want to leave. Her near collision with a drunken racing horse had become an instant addiction like bungee-jumping or sky-diving that even the thrill of posting photos on facebook could not compare to, and she was angry at us for leaving. My feeling was that I would have loved to stay but not if I was worried about them getting run over, so save it for another summer, or even next weekend when there is another panagiri in another village on the island and go by myself.

Earlier that Day....

Our near fatal collision with a horse was not the only event of the day. Early this morning our friend Mihos woke up and did a 92 kilometer bicycle ride from Vatousa to Erressos to Mesotopos and Kaloni and then back up the mountain to Vatousa. It took about five hours and today was the first hot day of the summer but Mihos is used to long bike rides, going once a week from his apartment in Exarchia all the way to Anavissos on the coast of Attika. But there are no serious mountains between Exarchia and Anavissos, in fact it is pretty flat, whereas you have to climb a pretty big mountain to get to Vatousa from Kaloni, so steep in fact that my car has to do it mostly in first and second gear. So despite making it back to the village in pretty good shape, when he started up the steep cobblestone street he collapsed in agony as his whole lower body went into cramps, in front of the house of two old ladies who came out screaming. We were up in our house and did not know about this until Elizabeth called Andrea and told her to get her car keys because Mihos had to go to the hospital because he had some kind of accident. Andrea, hearing Mihos in the background, screaming in Agony, does what she does in every crisis, of which in her family there are many: She became hysterical, running around like a chicken with its head cut off, yelling at Amarandi and I that we had to hurry and close up the house because Mihos had been in a terrible accident. Amarandi and I just looked at each other and asked her what we were supposed to do? Neither of us are doctors, nor do we even feel comfortable doing the Heimlich maneuver if indeed this was the appropriate circumstances for it. But Andrea was out the door and running down the hill to the scene of the accident carrying everything of Elizabeth's that she could find except the one thing she was asked to bring: the car keys.

I took the time to get dressed and make sure that Amarandi locked up the house after she finished up on Facebook, and walked down to see what was going on with Mihos but under no illusion that I could be anything but a spectator to the agony or possible death of our friend since at this point I still had no idea what was going on, only that it was a crisis of some kind. We are at the very top of the village so I went down to the upper platia but everything seemed normal. There were old guys drinking in the cafeneon, music was playing loudly and Mitsos, the town drunk, was bothering everyone who walked by including me. So I went further down to where the cars were parked and nobody was there either. There was a crisis going on and I could not even find it in a village of two hundred people. I sent a message to Andrea and then decided that if this was as serious as it seemed a text message might imply nonchalance or even cold hearted, self centered apathy. A phone call might be more appropriate and give more of an impression that I was taking the situation very seriously since I rarely use my phone for anything but SMS.

Andrea gave me a quick rundown and said that Mihos had severe dehydration and an ambulance was coming to get him and take him to the medical center in Antissa. Someone phoned Amarandi and she came down with the car keys that Andrea had forgotten, and she was given the task of bringing Mihos' bike back up the mountain. I was given the task of moving Mihos' car because it was parked directly behind Pam's car but for the life of me I could not figure out how to start the car. It was a Peugot, which is to real cars as French Films are to real movies: an acquired taste if you like them and terrible if you don't, and after half an hour of trying to figure out how to start the car, or even disengage the gears so I could roll it back by hand, I hated this car. I gave up and decided to call Andrea and Amarandi to come down so we could go to the beach since Mihos was happily on his way to the clinic with Elizabeth at his side and there was nothing more I could do (like I had done anything). When Amarandi came back down I told her I would give her fifty euros if she could start the car. I was sure she would not be able to. But she got in and in about thirty seconds the car started up. "How did you do that?" I asked in disbelief as I handed her fifty euros. "You have to pull up on the gear thingy and then it goes into drive and starts." I tried but could still not do it but she showed me how. She was very pleased with herself and rewarded herself by making Andrea sit in the back so she could sit in the front and play ZZ Top all the way to Agia Paraskevis.

horserace, agia paraskevis, lesvosSo the end of the story is that everyone is OK. We were not trampled by a wild drunken horse. Mihos was fine and the whole group stayed up at Pamela's house and ate spaghetti while Andrea and I drank two carafes of Methymnaos at Tryphone's and ate paidakia and told everyone the story of our near fatal trip to the horse races. And in the process of writing about it, I turned this day, which was really uneventful except for about two minutes and ten seconds, into a Quentin Tarrantino epic which begins in the middle and goes back to the beginning before reaching the end, like Pulp Fiction with fewer working parts. And what did I learn from the day's experience? Well, I learned two things about water. The first is that you need to drink plenty of water when you ride your bike for 92 kilometers on the hottest day of the year, and second, that you can throw ice cold water on a horses penis to calm him down, (but I sort of knew that since it is the same with humans). I guess I learned that you have to be really careful when you go to the horse races in Agia Paraskevis, not just during the race, but even during dinner, because nobody wants to cut short a holiday because they were trampled by a drunken horse while they were in a taverna eating paidakia.

This last photo is the horse that almost ended my blogging career. By the way these races are held in other villages around the island. Just look for posters advertising them around whatever town you are in.

Heliotopos Hotel, Lesvos

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