by Erin Rose Johnson
When you think of Greece, you most likely picture a gorgeous Mediterranean island dotted with white stucco buildings and blue roofs. Or, if you’re more historically inclined, you picture ancient ruins mixed into the metropolis of Athens. Either way, you’re not likely to think of Greece and immediately picture trekking through gorgeous green mountainsides and tiny abandoned villages. I certainly didn’t when I enrolled in my summer program based in Athens, Greece. Yet, my favorite part of our month-long trip was the time we spent in the rural Greek mountainside with an organization called Ecogenia.
I was surprised to find out that 80% of Greece is made up of mountains. A lot of the population used to live around the country, but due to the financial crisis and the boom of the tourism industry, majority population moved to Athens and still live there. This leaves many rural areas with sparse populations and little activity. However, the “village” concept is still strong—most Greeks know exactly what village their family comes from, whether they moved to Athens or to another country, such as the United States. Many Greeks visit their villages late every summer, a period of 10-20 days in which places like Athens are deserted.
Our program was focused on environmental media production, with a service-learning element. We spent 4 days in Dorida to produce films and volunteer with Ecogenia. Dorida is a rural mountain region that is one of the least populated places in Greece. There are fewer than 80 permanent residents across the 14 villages in this region. Ecogenia is an organization that works to increase environmentalism and sustainability in tourism, an industry that is so important to the Greek economy. Basing their organization on an Americorps model, Ecogenia sends 10 cohort members to live in a Dorida village for 4 months. Together, the cohort members work on ancient trails that once connected the 14 villages of Dorida. Nowadays, these trails are overgrown and hardly used. Once re-established, this trail network can attract backpackers to the region, creating an outlet for ecotourism, cultural exchange, and appreciation of the gorgeous Greek mountainside.
Upon arrival to Dorida, my lungs were immediately revitalized by the fresh mountain air. We stayed in the village’s guest house, which will someday host backpackers on their trek. This trip involved two service missions: building a trail during a Volunteer Day and creating 6 different promotional films for Ecogenia. We were welcomed into the village with a lamb roast dinner, dancing, and other festivities at the local Taverna. The taverna owner is one of three remaining villagers in this particular village, and although he did not speak English, we quickly saw why he was such a highly regarded figure in the community. Being someone that spends most of his time in solitude, it is a big adjustment to have 20 foreign Tulane students and 10 Ecogenia cohort members in his space. However, he welcomed us with open arms, a full plate of food, and hours of dancing. The Greek way.
My group was tasked with documenting the Volunteer Day itself, so we spent the first day in Dorida working on the trails with the cohort members while other groups began shooting footage. While physically taxing, this was one of my favorite days in Greece. We got to know the cohort members and hear their perspectives on sustainability, the Greek tourist industry, and hear their life histories. We cleared 150 meters of trail with them in one day, which they reported was twice what they usually clear in a day! I definitely appreciated this opportunity to work with them, but I wished that we had gotten to spend even more time volunteering our work on the trails.
The next day my group and I started filming around the village, collecting the necessary footage and audio for our final product. This involved talking to cohort members and villagers about what Ecogenia means to them, and why organizing a community volunteer day is important. One villager told us that the town used to have regular volunteer days when the community would get together and work on a project together. With the depopulation of the village, this tradition has been forgotten. This filled us with anticipation for the following day, in which we would gather with Tulane students, Ecogenia cohort members, and villagers alike to clear another trail.
The volunteer day was buzzing with excitement. We drove about 20 minutes to another village where our work would begin. The previously empty plaza was buzzing with tools, safety equipment, and people. It was really coming alive. Although most of the villagers did not speak English, it was incredible to hear their translated stories and anecdotes. We began filming interviews, trail work, and documenting the Volunteer Day process. As film production is not my major (or something I’ve even done before!) this day was challenging and new for me. However, I had lots of fun learning how to produce a film and tired myself out holding up the boom for our group.
Unfortunately, about an hour into our time working on the trails, it started to pour. Thunder and lightning prevented our ability to continue through the rain, and we all gathered in that town’s taverna. Waiting for the storm to pass, we sat down for coffee and card games, intermingling the three groups: Tulane, Ecogenia, and Dorida. Our group continued to shoot footage and document the process. The rain never passed, so we had to call it quits. While cut short, this day was a massive success for all groups. We started work on the trails and executed Ecogenia’s first Volunteer Day and Tulane’s first service project in Dorida. Once again, we gathered for a celebratory dinner and dancing night in the taverna, anticipating future executions of this service collaboration.
The next morning, we loaded into a bus and headed back to Athens. While my whole month in Greece was incredible, these four days in the mountains quickly got placed on the top of my favorites list. I learned a bunch of new skills, met incredible young adults working for Ecogenia, and left with a newfound appreciation for the Greek mountainside. I cannot wait to hear more from Ecogenia, and I hope to trek through Dorida once the trails are completed.
About the Author:
Name: Erin Rose Johnson
Major: Public Health, Environmental Studies
Grad year: 2024
Hometown: Atlanta, GA
Favorite outdoor activity: Backpacking
Favorite camp food: S’mores and homemade gorp/trail mix
Ideal outdoor trip destination: Anywhere with a great sunrise/sunset lookout, tall mountains, and a body of water to swim in.
What she would bring to a desert island: An eno, a lifetime supply of chicken nuggets, a journal, and a speaker/music. Maybe a lighter.