Spending one month in the sun on a Greek island and earning college credit at the same time... could a summer get any better?
DIKEMES (the International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies) partnering with Indiana University, organises a month-long programme during July each year for students to study in Paroikia with anthropology professor Susan Buck Sutton.
Twenty eight American students representing colleges from the east and west coasts of the United States traveled to Paros this July, not for a month-long summer vacation, but to earn college credit by understanding modern Greece through an anthropology class and service learning project.
This year’s group has continued to work with the municipality of Paros and resume the project of promoting eco-tourism begun by last year’s class. Last summer Sutton’s class cleared many hiking trails, while the focus of the service learning this year was on marine litter that was found while cleaning beaches and surrounding roads. Students woke up early each morning to congregate at the windmill in Paroikia and find out which beach would be cleaned that day. About forty volunteering hours were put in on the coastline of Paros.
What made the service learning project so feasible was the help that the class received from the Parians. The local community made sure that all the needs of the class were met, including transportation, food (chocolate croissants being the favourite), water, trash bags and gloves. At each beach the students went to clean they were always greeted by a friendly face welcoming and thanking them for the work being done.
The sun, on the other hand, had little or no mercy, especially on some of the fair-skinned friends of the class, but luckily there was often a good sea breeze to cool us down a little while we worked.
Spending four or more hours a day in the heat cleaning up roads and beaches, we came up with a number of ways to keep ourselves entertained and motivated. We started recording what trash was being collected and this soon turned into a competition to pick up as many of a particular item – such as bottle caps – as we could, or for the most outrageous pieces of garbage found.
During the breaks to swim or eat a snack, we would take a moment to look over what had been recorded while cleaning. So what outrageous things could possibly be found while cleaning beaches and roads? You’d be surprised. Items included a skeleton, shoes (usually just one shoe rather than a pair… so what happened to the other one?), porn DVDs, and something that appeared to be an eye patch. What was particularly shocking, though, were the significant numbers of cigarette butts, plastic bottles, beer cans and other random pieces of plastic. We began to collect water bottles in a separate bag for recycling, and we used recycled bio-degradable bags for the trash pick-up.
Dr Sutton explained to the class that since last year there were many improvements that could be noted, including trash cans being placed at regular intervals about every 200 metres along the beaches and the fact that some restaurants were cutting water bottles in half and part filling them with sand to use as beach ashtrays. We noticed that the beaches with these homemade ashtrays tended to have less cigarette litter.
After we’d been cleaning the beaches for a while, we found that we couldn’t help but pick up trash even while “off duty.” While enjoying a beach that was recently cleaned, students would sometimes become discouraged to see that it was populated with rubbish again. We became interested in what happened to the trash we collected and how the recycling programme on the island actually operated. Led by Yiannis Drakoulakos of the Paros Municipality’s environmental department, a small group went to the area of Aghios Charalambos to see the landfill or XYTA (which stands for sanitary solid waste landfill). Once we got used to the smell, it proved to be a uniquely interesting site to visit; although Yiannis was baffled as to why people would come from all the way from America to Paros to see a landfill!
In simple terms, when trash arrives at the XYTA, first large items are separated out and then what’s left is compressed and covered with soil, beneath which is a layer of a special membrane held down by rocks that keeps liquids from seeping into the drinking water. The unit is shaped something like a stadium and has a capacity estimated to provide for the island’s needs for about the next ten years. Once the unit is full, trees will be planted over it and the next cell will be started that will take around 15 years to fill.
Yiannis told us that the hardest things to break down are mattresses, iron and wood, and that solutions are being sought as these items are piling up. One solution already found for the wood is a chipper machine which produces wood chips that are given away for farming. Yiannis hopes to have a small local factory to produce compost and to separate out recyclables from the other trash, aiming for 100% of these items to go into the island’s recycling programme. This would extend the lifespan of each cell so that one unit in the landfill would take fifty or more years to reach capacity.
Items that can be recycled are already collected separately in the blue bins placed in locations all around the island, and these are taken to a separate depot on Paros where they are sorted and then shipped to the mainland to the Hellenic Recovery Recycling Corporation (www.herrco.gr).
The class hopes that their work over the summer proves to be contagious so that others might continue to carry out similar projects through the year. While we were working, we often attracted people’s attention and they would ask us what we were doing or just join in picking up trash or handing over more bags to use. Visitors to the island, as well as those who are lucky enough to call Paros their home, can all make a contribution to their environment – taking advantage in particular of the recycling bins around the island to recycle paper, glass, metal cans and plastics. Composting is also a great habit to start in homes and restaurants, and compost is a cheap fertilizer!
As well as participating in civic engagement, there was also time for students to experience the island through festivals, food, and fun. The first week in Paros the class visited Alyki, one of the beaches we had cleaned, to participate in the fire jumping festival of Aghios Ioannis tou Kleidona. We experienced the exhilaration of leaping through the flames, participated in a dancing class and learned about the importance of dance in Greek culture. We visited the Union of Agricultural Associations, the Environmental & Cultural Park of Paros, the ancient marble quarries (a personal favourite!), the Alkyoni Aegean Wildlife Hospital, and attended the annual celebration of the fish and wine festival in Naoussa. Through these experiences a transition was made from merely being a tourist to establishing a deeper connection with the island. The students learned about the lifestyle and the people of Paros; immediately picking up on the dominant atmosphere of family and community that is present here.
Groups from the class would frequent the island’s beaches, windsurfing and playing beach volleyball. Others explored Paroikia’s winding streets and shops, bakeries and cafés. We tried all kinds of different foods, mingled with the people of Paros, experienced the “kefi” dancing at The Dubliner, and over time as we began to feel like real “locals”, each student established their own favourite place on the island.
Sutton says that she hopes the class “will continue to deepen its relationship with individuals and organisations on Paros as we collaborate on issues of importance to the community.” For the remainder of our stay on the island, students broke up into groups to learn more about specific organisations and people in which they were interested, branching out to the Senior Citizens’ Home, art galleries, PAWS, and a variety of others.
Reflecting upon the last four weeks here in Paros and the summers to come, Sutton felt that “an essential part of student learning is that they give something back to the island which has so graciously hosted us, and that they do so through dialogue and cooperation with the people of Paros. Each year we do service for Paros, we learn something new and we come up with more projects for the coming year. This year we learned a great deal about marine litter, sparking a host of new ideas on how to attack this problem even more comprehensively next year.”
During our stay, the class developed a deep sense of gratitude toward the Parian people for being so welcoming. In the process we grew more aware of the consequences of our own individual actions and were able to take on the responsibility of being more eco-friendly; we hope our experience will inspire others to do likewise. The sense of community that is such a central feature of the island made it a perfect home away from home for us and each of us realised that we were, in fact, able to pinpoint the precise moment at which we fell in love with Paros!