by Inka Piegsa-Quischotte
Some of the most compelling images of Victoria Hislop’s book The Island are to be found in the opening paragraphs. She evokes the picture of a little boat, bobbing and lurching on the sea, bound on the saddest voyage possible, conveying a young, beautiful woman with no outward marks of a deadly disease, her “long strands of dark hair blowing freely in the wind” to Spinalonga, the island of no return for sufferers of leprosy.
My own hair was blowing freely in the stiff breeze that announced the onslaught of the fierce afternoon Meltemi, a wind typical of July and August in the Aegean, that blows from north to south, churning up the waves and even causing small crafts to capsize if they were caught unaware. It seemed a very fitting background for my trip from Elounda on the island of Crete to Spinalonga, a tiny island located just a few miles off shore and yet, for the lepers who at one time were exiled there, as far away as the moon.
The tourist vessel that ferried me to Spinalonga was a far cry from the boat described in The Island but the sensation of approaching a forbidding place, laden with drama, misery, death and despite it all, an enormous spirit of defiance, increased as we approached the enormous Venetian fortress which dominates the now abandoned island.
It’s not only the story of the lepers who were able to create a lively community, complete with weddings and births despite being rejected as “unclean” and “untouchable” from the days of the Old Testament onward which caused me to name Spinalonga the “island of defiance” — the name stems also from the history of the fortress itself.
Built in 1579 by the Venetians who ruled Crete for several centuries, tenacious Spinalonga and its fortress resisted the Ottoman conquerors for nearly fifty years longer than the rest of the island until 1715, when they finally had to succumb to the remorseless siege.
Breathing in the salty air and enjoying the wet feel of spray on my face, I felt that there must be a very special spirit surrounding Spinalonga. One that nurtured and encouraged such strength of will and determination in the face of adversity.
For a moment I slipped into the character of Eleni, one of The Island‘s heroines, who was forced to abandon her husband and her two young daughters to live on the island. Somewhat ironically, Eleni was accompanied by 11 year old Dimitri, a child torn from his own family, who was one of her pupils and was widely suspected of having infected her with the disease.
Gripping the boy’s hand tightly, she approached Dante’s Gate, the only entrance to the leper colony, through a tunnel in the fortress walls. Like Eleni, I was uncertain of what to expect as I disembarked and followed her footsteps. I still did not know whether my journey to the island was inspired by morbid curiosity or if it came from a real desire to experience first hand what these unfortunate people must have felt.
“Yes,” my knowledgeable guide Vasili sighed, “people do come here as others are drawn to the sight of a terrible traffic accident. They expect I don’t know… Skeletons, crutches — anything that makes their spines shiver. But that’s not what Spinalonga is all about.”
Hislop’s book is a work of fiction but the background is very real. As I followed Vasili out of the tunnel, a small village street opened up before us, lined with, deplorably run down and derelict houses, which despite their forlorn appearance, give a good impression how the lepers lived. From 1903 to 1957, when a cure was found and the last sufferer left the island, the inhabitants worked to improve their conditions and create a community with a market, shops, a school, a church, stone houses and vegetable gardens. In fact, life on the island was an improvement for most, as previously, unbelievable as this may sound for the twentieth century, they had been living in caves on the island of Crete, feeding on whatever scraps of food they could find. They had no means to tend to their wounds because of the enormous fear of contamination of their fellow citizens. Add to this the biblical stigma of leprosy — equaled only by the black plague — and you get a vivid picture of what their lives were like.
As depicted in Hislop’s character Papadimitriou, a lawyer from Athens who became the island leader, leprosy could affect anybody from any social environment. Contrary to popular belief, leprosy did not just strike the poor or uneducated, a fact that accounts for the various skills and professional experiences of the island’s inhabitants. The range of abilities not only made it possible to transform a motley heap of outcasts into a community, it also helped convince the government to provide the exiles with more funds.
Although some restoration could improve this unique place and help it become the monument it deserves to be, there are some small museums scattered throughout the island. I was drawn to the faded photographs and reminded that Spinalonga is not merely the setting for a work of fiction — it also stands as testimony to all the real people who lived and died here. They seemed to speak to me, to tell me of their pain and suffering, yet also of their never fading hope that one day a cure would be found. Indeed, a cure was eventually found, but in the meantime, they got on with things as best as they could.
The wind was sweeping the island in earnest now, whistling through the massive walls of the fortress, rustling the leaves on the olive trees. It seemed as though they were whispering of those special places in the world where to this day, one can feel an inspiring strength, a spirit of tenacious determination.
I didn’t feel like participating in the BBQ on the beach which came with the tour. Instead, I sat on the rock like Eleni when she waited for her husband’s weekly supply boat to appear over the horizon and contemplated a few changes to my own life.
It’s no coincidence that the duration of the Ottoman siege and the existence of the leper colony cover approximately the same time span. Both events are evidence of some unfading spirit that haunts this place. The tiny defiant island has become something of a symbol for me.
Whenever I remember the day I visited Spinalonga, I see the photograph of two women, dressed in the stern fashions of their time, faces covered with the terrible sores announcing that they reached the final stage of leprosy before the long awaited cure could come to their rescue. But despite all that, they smiled bravely into the camera.
Unlike Eleni, they were real people, whose courage and suffering should never be forgotten.
SPECIAL NOTE: Author Inka Piegsa-Quischotte recently won a Readers Favorite Award 2009 under the category of fiction/light women’s fiction for her novel: The Househusbands’ Club. Please click the link to view Inka’s book.