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Second First Impressions From Lesvos: A Frosty Start

25/01/2016 17:07 GMT | Updated 22/01/2017 10:12 GMT

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Touching down at 06:20 having spent the night travelling inevitably steeps reality with a peculiar hue, but driving out of Mytilene airport in my Hyundai tin can, I felt an eerie sense of both recognition and foreignness. I knew the roads - I had driven them tens of times in October. I knew the town, and I knew its harbourfront restaurants. As I drove past the first pile of lifejackets, I knew them, too. But it all seemed different somehow. Under the harsh winter light, and with the cold pressing doors firmly shut, the island felt dormant - and not contentedly so.

I drove along the coast road, taking the dirt track from Skala Sykaminea that runs alongside the island's northern beaches where the majority of boats land. Even early in the morning, they were a hub of activity, with hi-vis-vested volunteers waving flags and directing arrivals. The routines were all the same, repeated every day since I first saw them in September - and long before. But I was still shocked by them. Almost like watching a silent horror film - perhaps with the freezing cold numbing senses - this activity felt like a parallel reality. Worse, it seemed in a struggle against reality.

On my 90-minute drive, and all before 09:30, I saw three boats land - one towed in to shore by a rescue rib - and a coastguard boat speeding off to some point in the middle of the ocean. Although I knew that the crossings hadn't stopped - that people were still braving the cold and the icy wind and waves to reach Greece - actually seeing it, and feeling that insidious, biting island cold, floored me. I was fascinated to watch and refamiliarise myself with these operations, but I grew sickened as I couldn't stop my instinct imagining myself as a passenger on those boats; myself in wet clothes; myself convulsing from cold; myself delirious from motion sickness and brainfreeze. Perhaps that was the fascination.

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One concrete difference I noticed was a lacing, the whole way along the shoreline, of the carcasses of big wooden boats - trawlers and tourist cruisers - that must have held up to 250 bodies as they crossed. Perhaps the price was higher to travel on these apparently sturdier vessels. Several lay on their side, the frigid grey waves lapping at the benches where, in past summers, a British tourist's bottom might have perched as they wowed at Turkey's coastline and complained about the heat and not having enough space. I thought of the shipwreck in October, just after I had returned to London, in which dozens died, just off these beaches. A boat just like these.

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Why do the smugglers use these boats, that would be so much more expensive than the plastic dinghies mass produced in China? Certainly not out of deep concern for the safety of their passengers. I can only presume that they 'adopt' any boats taken out of commission, deemed unsafe to sail, before loading them to multiple times the safe capacity even of their heyday, sailing them to the middle of the ocean at night, and abandoning ship.

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Constructively, though still hauntingly, there were teams in the water dismembering these skeletons with chainsaws. The wood was destined for Moria, the official registration camp, to be used in fires to keep people warm through the cold nights and days. All over the island, in fact, there had been a thorough clean-up and improved management of the rubbish and debris left as a mark of those passing through. An extremely positive development, of course - but it also contributed to the impression I was getting that the refugee situation has less presence on the island; that a concerted effort was being undertaken to cover up and hide away these visitors - an island secret. A disturbing notion.

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Sinister as it is, I don't blame the islanders for this - I appreciate that their income relies on tourism. What is far more disturbing is that tourists - a high percentage from the UK - are cancelling holidays to Lesvos, from fear of being made uncomfortable by coming into contact with refugees; with the reality of those people at whom they express vapid sympathy through their television at home. I am the last person to refrain from criticism of the new Windy Ridge camp opened by the US-based IRC. However, the inauspicious location of the camp - on a windy ridge (surprisingly), in a valley, and down a dirt track inaccessible to buses - is less the result of poor planning by the organisation, and more the only option presented by the locals, keen to keep this away from the eyes of tourists. So instead of pointing accusatorily at Greek islanders as being anti-refugee, perhaps we ought instead to examine ourselves, and why it is we feel that the presence of people from the Middle East on their way to safety would rather spoil our fun. And, if you want an easy way to help the crisis this summer, book a holiday to Lesvos.

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