It was a sunny afternoon in December when I drove up the winding gravel road; the light filtering through the silvery olive leaves. I was on a search to find an olive grove being harvested.
Pausing at the first grove, two men harvesting shook their heads. “No, no photos.” I wished them well on their harvest and drove on. A bit further up the mountain I came across another grove being harvested, but three men sat underneath a tree, enjoying their lunch break. A fourth man sat in the pickup truck, listening to his loud Greek music.
I drove past but when I couldn’t find any more groves being harvested, I pulled a three point turn and drove back down the mountain. By this time, the three men who had been on break, were hard at work again.
Traveling to the island of Lesvos, Greece during the winter months had me excited to experience the ancient tradition of harvesting olives. On Lesvos alone, there are an estimated 11,000,000 olive trees. It was a common sight to see groves spread with mesh and the Greeks hard at work.
I parked my white Nissan Micra alongside the road and got out, clutching my Canon 1D Markiii in my hand. I approached the open window on the driver side of the truck, “May I take some photos of the men harvesting?,” I asked. The man sitting inside looked up at me with delighted curiosity. “I’m fascinated by the olive harvest I see happening all over this island,” I told him, “and so I’m looking for a grove owner who wouldn’t mind my taking some photos.” With a jolly laugh he climbed out of his truck and shouted a few Greek words to his employees. He was clearly excited at the prospect.
“I own seventeen groves and they are all organic.” He led me through the open gate and into the grove, telling me about his olive groves. “We take special care in the way that we harvest, not to injure the olives in the process. We harvest them off of the trees, rather than letting them fall to the ground and begin to rot.”
“Kalimera” I called as we approached the workers. I motioned to my camera and asked, “May I take photos?” The three men stared back at me curiously. Their faces were lined with hard work, dirt and sweat. When the grove owner told them I wanted to take pictures of them working, they burst out laughing.
They continued to beat the olive branches with wooden poles to coax the olives to fall from the trees. When each laden tree had delivered its fruit, the mesh was then pulled away from the tree. The olives were then carefully combed through and unnecessary branches were hauled away. Then they would move on to the next tree. “How long does one tree take to harvest?” I asked. “Oh, it depends; one, sometimes two or three hours.”
When all the branches had been removed from the mesh and only olives remained, they grabbed the olives by handfuls and filled sacks with them until they bulged in wonderful abundance. “I inherited this olive grove from my father,” the grove owner explained to me. “He is gone now, but my father inherited it from his father and he inherited it from his father and it is with great pride that I tend it now.”
“Most of the trees in this olive grove are 200-300 years old. Except those over there,” he pointed to a section of the grove where a handful of young olive trees stood. “The young trees are only seven years old and haven’t begun to produce yet.” The grove owner insisted that I hand the camera to him and let him take pictures of me helping with the harvest. The three workers had been amused by my taking pictures of them working. Now that I was helping them, they whooped and hollered. I raised the pole high in the air and whacked the tree branches just like I had seen them doing. “Bravo, bravo!” they encouraged.
“Tomorrow, come back and we will employ you!” the owner said with a grin as I thanked him and left.
A Greek man that worked in the refugee camp explained to me one day over lunch that, “Greece is unique from other European countries in that it is ties Europe, Asia, Africa and even parts of the Middle East together.”
It was incredible for me to see the way that the Greek people have taken up the tab for the refugee crisis. A team of Greeks come daily into camp Moria to pick up trash, catering companies have served food tirelessly over the last two years as the crisis has continued on. The police and military force have helped to keep things as peaceful as possible. Fishermen out at sea are suddenly searching for more than a good catch of fish; they’ve assisted in numerous refugee dinghy boat landings as well.
As any world crisis does, it takes its toll on the people who are assisting. The Greek economy has suffered further and the crime rate has increased. I do not want to paint a perfect picture of a very messy situation. Certainly not everyone has responded well. But after living in Greece for five months, I can say that the Greek people have done their best to assist in a crisis that is bigger and far more complicated than any news article leads you to believe.
In spite of their own limitations and frustrations regarding the crisis, the Greeks have reached out their hands to the hungry and given shelter to displaced people from many different countries from around the world.