I was staying in an apartment near Pefki, a town on the northern coast of the island of Rodos, Greece and I was there to go swimming.
The best place to swim was behind my apartment, where there was a sandy beach and deep water. But to get there involved having to follow a narrow track about 300 metres long through an empty field covered in high grass. It was a good idea to keep to the track when crossing the field, because in the nearby grass there were lots of prickles and thorns.
Billions, it seemed; an inexhaustible number.
However it wasn’t often possible to keep to the track because there was a mad donkey to contend with. The donkey was tethered by a rope to a stake in the ground, but the rope was several meters long, which gave it enough leeway to easily reach the walking track. And for some reason, it was in the habit of charging human visitors. Many times when I followed the track to the beach – and back again – and the donkey, on seeing me, raced towards me making its donkey noise – how could you describe it? Like a mixture between a wail, a scream, and a very rusty gate. It was called ‘braying’ but somehow that word didn’t seem to capture the incredible noise which this animal made.
I never hung around long enough to see what the donkey would do when it reached me.
When an animal of that size moves towards you at such a speed and making such a noise, then discretion is definitely the better part of valour. When the donkey started running, I took to my heels and made sure I got out of its tether-range as fast as I could. This meant leaving the track and fleeing into wild grass and making a wide circle around the donkey.
After clearing the field, I had to then stop and meticulously pick out the carpet of thorns stuck to my rubber sandals.
That crazy donkey!
If it wasn’t for him, I would have been in a swimmer’s paradise!
But as the days passed, the donkey became a part of my life and it wasn’t long before he became a part of my experience of Rodos….
The trip to the swimming bay, often around midday, led to me becoming involved in a sort of game with the donkey. Sometimes, instead of munching grass, he (it was a he) lay down on his side and slept. Then I was very careful to creep passed him, following the track, and making sure not to make the slightest sound. It was a bit of a laugh really: an adult man tip- toeing like a kid, not daring to even breathe, for fear of waking up a mad donkey. It was worth the effort though because it saved me yet another session of having to pick the thorns out of my sandals.
Not long after this little game began, I gave the donkey a name: Derrick.
‘Derrick the donkey’.
I stayed for a month. The weather was good, the swimming was excellent. It was well before the summer tourist rush began.
Every trip to and from the swimming beach involved a small drama with Derick. He began to loom large in my life. A walk of around 10 minutes seemed to become like an odyssey.
Would Derrick be asleep, or would he be feeding?
Sometimes the owner moved the stake around after Derrick had eaten out a circle of grass, but he never moved the stake far away from the trail. It was generally speaking just a question of where, at what particular part of the track, I could expect to be charged by Derrick.
Still, there was no choice about going to the swimming beach. It was the highlight of my day. After a swim, everything looked different. It was easier to distance myself from the suffocating cocoon of my own habits and routines and thoughts.
Usually my greeting to Derrick on the way to the beach was a curse – and on the way back, a compliment.
Well, actually, I had to admit that his idiosyncratic behaviour aside, Derrick was a nice looking animal.
And who could possibly know the reason why he charged people?
He didn’t know.
Maybe he was tired of being a donkey staked to the ground and having nothing better to do with his days than eat grass. He never asked to be a donkey anymore than I had asked to be a human being.
That’s just how it panned out.
One day, I looked up ‘donkeys’ on the net.
All the donkeys in the world I read – an estimated 40 million of them – were related to the African wild ass. These were first domesticated 4,000 years ago by the Egyptians. Most donkeys were found in underdeveloped nations where they were used – and hugely abused – as work animals. A donkey was hardier than a horse and ate a lot less. A donkey was the ultimate beast of burden, an animal which everyday suffered the worst mistreatment imaginable.
And to top it all off, the human race had somehow decided to use the donkey as an example of stupidity or obstinacy. In every language there were metaphors involving being as stupid as a donkey and so on and so forth – even though the fact was, the donkey was an intelligent animal and if treated well, also very loyal and affectionate.
One day I had a conversation with the Greek owner of the apartment block where I was staying which shed some light on Derrick’s life. The owner’s name was George and he was in his fifties; he had a thick mane of silvery hair and wore a track suit and drove around in a Korean four-wheel drive. He owned a few apartment blocks in the area and also a hotel. Like many Greeks, he was very friendly and spoke good English.
‘During the summer, that donkey is driven to one of the big tourist resorts further along the coast…’
I’d seen them alright, rows of high-rise luxury hotels.
‘He’s put in a trailer along with other donkeys and taken over there. The donkeys are used to take children on rides, also adults…’
I could imagine that some of those adults were grossly overweight.
Then a tone of indignation came into his voice:
‘The rides are hard on the donkeys, along the beach or something like this, also up steep hills, steep hills, in the heat…it gets hot here in summers, 45 degrees…some of the owners beat the donkeys with sticks.’
Derrick was one of the hapless donkeys who every summer was put in the back of trailer, driven to a package tourist destination, worked almost to death and then, at the end of summer was put in a field to eat down the grass.
It wasn’t much of a life.
I figured that Derrick might have a damn good reason for being a bit crazy.
I felt sorry for him, even though every time he charged me, especially on the way to the swimming beach, I swore at him. On the way back though, wet and dripping, I felt guilty and thought: ‘here I am worried about having to extract a carpet of thorns out of my sandals whilst Derrick is sentenced to a terrible donkey life. ‘
Some days on the way back from a swim I talked to Derrick.
I let him charge at me, stood back, and when he was at the end of his tether, whereupon he usually stopped and stared, I chatted to him.
I was becoming as neurotic as him.
George was religious.
So were most Greeks.
There were two big orthodox churches in the area, one about 15 minutes’ walk away from my apartment. It was fairly new and brightly painted. It had a large dome. Once I ventured inside to take a look and the black clad priest invited me in to take a look inside a library at the back of the church. There was a painting hanging on a wall of what I suppose must have been a famous Greek Orthodox priest and it was a spitting image of a Greek friend of mine back in Australia.
One Sunday I saw Nick and his wife and family emerging from the church, along with many others. All of them were immaculately dressed. It was strange seeing Nick in a suit.
During our conversation about donkeys and Derrick (although I didn’t mention the name I’d given the donkey in the field), Nick said:
‘Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. You’d think that we Greeks would have a bit more respect for them instead of working them to death and beating them. Donkeys should be sacred to us –‘
‘Like cows in India’ I said.
He looked at me, thought a while, and smiled:
‘Yuh….cows in India…’
The image stayed with me: Jesus on a donkey, on a Derrick, entering Jerusalem. I’m not a Christian, but I seemed to recall from my days of attending church (my parents forced me) that this Jesus on the donkey image belonged to Palm Sunday. Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey knowing that he would be betrayed and crucified. Even as a kid I found it hard to believe that Jesus could have known his fate beforehand (‘predestination’). As an adult man, I couldn’t see the point. To me, the story of preacher of non-violence, tolerance, forgiveness and love being put to death by a caste of temple priests concerned to maintain their privileged position was perfectly true to life – and had all the moral power that any story needed to have. No need for all that medieval monkish magic, that predestination stuff.
The image of Jesus on the back of a Derrick really quite appealed to me. Jesus wasn’t dressed in fine robes, wasn’t leading an army of conquest, wasn’t dressed in armour or a richly decorated steed. He was on a humble donkey; it was an image of humility, of unpretentiousness, of selflessness.
At some point a middle-aged English couple moved into the apartment next to mine. They rented a car and went out a fair bit of the time so I didn’t see a lot of them, just said hello and exchanged a few words in passing. A couple of weeks passed and then 2 days before they were due to fly home, they stayed put and didn’t drive anywhere.
One afternoon I got talking to them. By and by, we got on to the subject of the donkey. I had noticed that they also went to bay behind the apartments and crossed the same field, usually in the late afternoon after they’d got back.
I said ‘have you noticed the donkey?’
I’ll say we have!
The man said: ‘He’s right loopy that one!
His wife disagreed and she was passionate:
‘No he’s not! I’ve lived in Africa, I know about donkeys. All he wants is a pat on the head. When he charges at you, all you have to do is stand still. He’ll stop at the last minute and put his head down…’
Her husband quipped:
‘Yeah ok luv, you’re spot on there, ‘e just wants a lovely pat… ‘e’s a nice animal alright but I don’t want pat the blighter, cor blimey he smells…’
A thought ran through my mind: Derrick didn’t charge people in order to hurt them or bunt them; all he wanted was a bit of attention: a pat on the head. All those trips across the field and I’d run away from him.
The English couple then added: ‘we’ve even given him a name’
I said: ‘yeah, so have I’
‘We call him Wonky… Wonky Donkey’
I returned: ‘I call him Derrick, Derrick the Donkey’
The man pulled a long face whilst his wife laughed uncontrollably, tears coursing down her face.
The man said: ‘Ere…my name’s Derrick’
View from my apartment, Pefki, Rodos
The thorn laded field I had to cross to get to the swimming beach.
The swimming beach