The Big Crete Cave-In
"What are you doing here?" The youngster shrugged and scratched his ear before he answered: "Nothing really. I just live."
"And when did you come here and how long will you be staying?"
"Been here since summer," he replied. "I'm not sure what I want to leave& maybe in a few weeks, maybe in a few months. Don't really know."
This was our introduction to Matala, the mecca of cave dwellers on the Mediterranean island of Crete, and it came from an American teenager who stood on the beach and munched on an orange, spitting the seeds skillfully into the wind.
His name was Jim McKiernan, he said, and he was 18 years old and from Madison, Wisconsin, and this was part of his "Bumming around Europe" after graduating from high school.
Behind him, tattered, bearded, long-maned creatures could be spotted at various levels of the steeply rising cliff, squatting in front of their haunts, or hovering over small fires to prepare their modest meals - a scene like Stone Age revisited.
Below, a stiff surf was lashing the pebbly beach of the Matala cave, and the wind was playing with laundry strung up over the cave entrances.
One fellow who looked the part of Judas in an Oberammergau Passion Play peeled potatoes, neatly dropping the peels into the sea below - instant garbage disposal.
Another American, one of several in the International colony of cave dwellers at Matala, joined the conversation.
"Civilization is coming and it will ruin this beautiful place," he said, nodding toward a bulldozer on the beach which was scoping up fill for a road project. During the summer, he said, a team from Life magazine had discovered Matala, with the resulting story introducing it to the rest of the world as one of the places overseas where "young American nomads hang out."
"The story came out too late in the summer to do much harm," said the man, who later identified himself himself as Steve Levy from New York City. "But you'll see, next summer the place will be crawling with tourists. It's a shame&"
There was other evidence the Greek villagers were already girding for the golden tourist bonanza. Amid the ankle-deep mud of the town square a concrete parking lot had been laid.
Word of the carefree, rent-free kind of life in the caves of Matala gets around through the grapevine among the long-haired set and ensures year-around occupancy.
No one knows who first cut the caves into the yielding sandstone of the Matala cliff, although local legend has it that Ulysses spent a night there seeking shelter and that the ancients used them as burial sites. At one time it was a leper colony.
In recent years the 30 to 40 caves of various sizes and degrees of comfort have become a haven for wanderers and aimless souls from many nations - Americans, Germans, Dutchmen, Italians, Britons& hippies, college kids, drifters, ex-Peace Corps types, people trying to get away from the pressures of home and civilization, in search of something and everything.
"I want to find out about myself, about what to do with my life. What better place to do it?" said McKiernan, whose family owns a big construction business at home in Wisconsin.
He was sharing his cave with a girl companion, red-haired Janet Carrier from New Jersey, a type of housekeeping arrangement which makes no one at Matala raise his eyebrows.
Not that there is much in the way of homemaking. Life is reduced to the barest necessities. The sun shines the year around, the swimming is great, the natives are friendly. Local products like oranges, olives, goat cheese, and wine - including the grim-tasting "reisina" - come cheap and so does an occasional meal at Dalini's, the village tavern and mail pickup.
"Out here," said Levy, "you begin to realize how little man actually needs to get by. Hell, you can live on 50 cents a week of you have to or care to. I don't, I don't believe in starving."
Leading the visitors up to his rocky pad on the second or third "floor," he explained he even kept a car parked down at the village. He had bought it when he came to Europe and uses it about once a week for a shopping run to Iraklion or, occasionally, when someone on the Rock is in need of medical attention.
"That's the only thing bad about being out here - you can't afford to get sick," he said. "The other day a guy had a little trouble with his kerosene stove and it burned his side. We had to get him to a hospital and so it's good if someone has some kind of transportation."
The road to Iraklion - the most important town on the island and home of the Air Force's 8031st Security Group - winds north across the arid girth of Crete for some 50 miles, a trip that normally takes a couple of hours, Zeus willing.
(They say Zeus, the godfather in Greek mythology, was born on snowcapped Mount Ida, Crete's highest mountain. But even assuming he was able to read the road signs (all Greek to the average tourist), chances are he didn't make it down to Matala very often, what with brutal potholes, rock slides, herds of sheep blocking progress and very good odds of losing a muffles somewhere between Mires and Patsidia.)
Not quite man-high, Levy's cave nonetheless turned out to be surprisingly roomy and featured two bunks carved into the rock and covered with air mattresses.
A ledge served as a shelf for the groceries and other basic necessities, a piece of curtain covered the entrance, and there was even wall-to-wall carpeting - a large grass mat.
The place looked so clean and well-kept that the visiting smokers were fearful of dropping ashes on the floor and looked around for an ashtray. Levy produced one - an empty tin can.
A beat-up guitar was leaning against the wall, but Levy said he wasn't a musician. "It belongs to another fellow with whom I'm sharing the cave," he said, inviting his guests to sit on the floor.
Then Levy sprang his little surprise. Back home in "civilian life," he said, he is a successful producer of television commercials and documentaries with several big accounts to his name.
"One day I just decided to take some time off from the rat race and do some traveling in Europe to gain a new perspective," he said. "Then I came down here to Matala and liked it so well, I stayed.
"Call it a kind of withdrawal into myself, if you will. You don't give a damn about anything out here - you just live with yourself and nature and you find out a lot of things about yourself."
As the afternoon wore on, Levy's visitors got up and apologized for having to leave to make it back to Iraklion before dark. Levy grinned: "See what I mean?"
But the return trip obviously no longer had the blessing of Zeus - the muffler did fall off somewhere between Mires and Patsidia and darkness had already settled when we finally pulled up at our Iraklion hotel.
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