We stopped at the natural, hot springs of Thermopylae, which means “The Hot Gates”, on our way from Delphi to Meteora in Greece. It should have been the perfect end, to a perfect day. We had experienced unusual homeschooling success in Delphi. Thermopylae is another spot full of stories. Here a group of 300 Spartans, led by King Leonidas, managed to delay the Persians long enough to give the Athenians time to prepare for battle, and ultimately fend off the Persians. Instead, we learned about a different struggle at Thermopylae.
We found a small sign saying ‘hot springs’ that pointed to a gravel road. The smell of sulfur was guiding us the rest of the way. A bearded man was already standing under in the hot waterfall as if taking a shower. The stones looked all shades of green and blue, presumably from moss and minerals. At the bottom of the waterfall, the stream thundered on, in a gentle slope over pointy rocks.
“We can slide down,” Nine yelled. He had seen this in the pictures I had shown to drum up enthusiasm for the pit stop. In a jiffy, he changed into his swim trunks, slipped into the water, and was sitting in ready position at the top of the slide. A second bearded man, who was wading the knee-deep water in his underwear, grabbed his arm. He was pointing to the back of his head and then to Nine. By now, my husband had caught up with Nine and understood what was going on. It was much too dangerous to slide down these rocks. The water was quite powerful, and it was easy to slam your head against the rocks, on the way down. This stranger may have saved my son’s life. We exchanged grateful smiles and entered the water together. It was toasty, and the moss indeed very soft and slippery.
We relaxed and looked around to take in our surroundings. What was it with these bearded men? They didn’t look Greek at all. More men were hanging around, sitting on folding chairs next to the gravel road. They looked bored. A girl in pink gazed at us from the gates. She leaned against the bars, clutching a green teddy, for the whole time that we were bathing. Down the road stood a fancy hotel, with too much laundry hang from the windows. It dawned on us that the bankrupt hotel could be a refugee center. This article in The New York Times confirmed our suspicion.
The start of our world trip, in July 2015, coincided with a surge of refugees fleeing Syria. Just weeks before our departure, the world refugee organization UNCHR reported that worldwide displacement had hit an all-time high with nearly sixty million people on the run. We met friends in The Netherlands, involved in making these refugees feel at home. Some American acquaintances traveled to the Greek island of Lesvos to help with the relief efforts. In Lesvos, refugees arrive in small boats from Turkey. We considered to volunteer ourselves. However, by the spring of 2016, over one hundred and twenty charity organizations were falling over each other on Lesvos, and there were too many volunteers. At the same time, tourists were canceling vacations to Greece, hurting the already bankrupt nation.
In the end, we decided that perhaps the best way to help Greece, and indirectly the refugees, was to continue our trip to Greece as planned, and to spend our tourist dollars. Still, the encounter at Thermopylae made a lasting impression on all of us. Deciding to continue our trip as planned did not mean to close our eyes. “I think I know what kind of organization I want to support in next year’s Avoda Olam project,” WorldTripGirl said, referring to the year-long fundraiser seventh graders engage in at her California school. We all agreed.