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Refugees huddle where Aesop once told his tales

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Legend has it that when Aesop, a slave, was brought to the Greek island of Samos, he so charmed the locals with his fables that they not only freed him but honoured him with a shrine.

That Aesop should have come to this Northern Aegean island for freedom holds a special poignancy today, even if it is only myth, because Samos is now home to one of the largest refugee camps in Greece. More than 4,400 asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa live in and around an overcrowded camp above the port town of Vathy, the capital of Samos, waiting for clearance to cross the sea to the mainland and beyond, where they hope to find a future.

Unlike the other Greek island camps, which tend to be built in remote places, the Samos camp is close enough to town to allow refugees to walk to shops and the seafront, so when I was there in October and this summer, I was able to meet some and do what I could to help, even as I was also exploring the island, renowned for its dramatic mountains and dazzling azure seas.

Like the rest of Greece, Samos suffered from the economic crash of 2008, followed by a dip in tourism and a wave of refugees in 2015, so local business owners, volunteer organizations and refugees alike welcome tourists who wish to help and enjoy themselves at the same time.

Choosing an Airbnb in Kedros, a hamlet across the bay from Vathy, I spent my first evening sitting on a flagstone terrace, gazing across the water at the town and the Turkish mountains beyond, watching the Aegean blues shift and shimmer.

Renting an Airbnb or a room in a Greek-owned hotel helps the economy, and mine was an elegant stone house with a swimming pool and a beach down the hill.

Ten minutes away by car, I discovered Lemonakia, a beach set in a sheltered cove. Most of the beaches in Samos are made of pebbles as smooth and round as marble eggs. This is no problem if you bring water shoes, and the stones keep the sea as clear as bathwater.

On my second day, I drove into Vathy to deliver a bag of children’s clothes to Samos Volunteers, the main non-governmental organization on the island helping refugees. The organization is multinational, so its staff, many of whom are students, come from a wide variety of countries, including Romania, Spain, Britain and the United States. They were delighted to take my contribution, which I had known to bring from consulting their online list of urgent needs.

Giulia Cicoli, the education co-ordinator, suggested that visitors can choose what to bring from the list and either purchase the items at home or, even better, buy them from merchants in Vathy, thereby supporting the local economy and the refugees. It is easy, for instance, to buy much-needed pens and pencils in a local stationary store and bring them to the nearby youth centre, Mazi, run by an NGO called Still I Rise.

“We’re happy to have people walk in and give us their donations,” Giulia said. “And if you have a special skill, like knitting, yoga, writing or cooking, and would like to offer a class or two, let us know.”

Some local cafes and restaurants refuse to serve refugees unless they are accompanied by someone who is clearly Western, but there are exceptions, and Coffee Lab is one. Its owners made breakfast for refugees when the first big wave arrived in 2015 and still welcome those who wish to sit inside or on the terrace. Another exception is Péra Vrékhi, an excellent restaurant owned by Manilos Patinilotis. After all, many Greeks understand what it is to be an exile, war and poverty having repeatedly scattered them all over the world.

Samians have their own particular history as refugees as well, going back to 365 B.C., when Athenians captured Samos, exiled its inhabitants and seized their lands. According to Aristotle, their plight so affected the Spartans — the famously fierce warriors of the Trojan War — that they fasted for a day and donated the saved money to the refugees.

Hera, queen of the gods, who was supposedly born in Samos, was also a symbol of asylum. Her eighth-century B.C. temple, the Heraion, the ruins of which are near the town of Pythagoria, was partly built as a sanctuary for refugees. Statues from the site are now in the Archeological Museum in Vathy, below the camp.

Today’s refugees are receiving less sympathy than did their predecessors, unfortunately, partly because Greeks are still hurting economically and don’t believe they can afford to support the continuing surge of refugees, and partly because the recent closings of European borders, the U.S. travel ban against some Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, and overcrowded camps on the mainland, have left more asylum seekers than ever trapped on the islands.

The Vathy camp, for instance, which sits on a former army barracks designed to hold 700 people, has swelled by more than 1,000 since June, according to the UNHCR. Shipping containers and tents are crammed into every corner while families sleep in the open on the surrounding hillsides in tents they must buy or make themselves, plagued by bedbugs and rats.

Thus, when Ayad arrived to meet me at Coffee Lab with his friend, Hasan Majnan, 25, who is also Syrian, they were eager to talk and change the routine of their difficult days. We met several times a week to talk at cafes or to walk by the sea.

Ayad is tall, with wavy black hair and huge, expressive eyes. He and his family fled their town of Sabinah, just south of Damascus, in 2012, when it became impossible to go out for food without being shot at by military snipers and after his uncle and his two young cousins were killed.

Hasan has a pointed, worried face and a shock of grey hair; a result, he told me, of the traumas he has endured, including the murder of his twin brother and his own torture by Daesh.

Their stories are tragic, but, as Ayad said, “Every story here is sad. Each is only a drop in the ocean.” He and Hasan find comfort in helping their fellow refugees, in their friendships and in exploring the island.

Between my days meeting with them and other refugees, I, too, explored. Samos is a diamond-shaped island less than a mile from Turkey, ringed by beaches and dominated by two major mountains, both of which offer spectacular hikes. June and early fall are ideal times to visit, when the water is warm and the air cool.

In the centre of the island sits Mount Karvounis, lush with pine, olive, lotus and fig trees. My favourite hike was from the seaside resort of Kokkari up to the village of Vourliotes, a honeycomb of traditional stone houses clinging to the mountainside, their terracotta roofs decorated with pottery pigeons.

From there, I took a detour to Vronda Monastery, built in 1556 and the oldest in Samos. An imposing stone structure, it is inhabited by only three Orthodox monks. As I climbed, inhaling air scented with resin and thyme, I was rewarded with stunning views of vineyards ribboning the island, olive groves undulating from green to silver in the wind, and the glimmering blues of the sea.

The west side of Samos is wilder and largely protected as a park. Mount Kerkis rises in a dramatic heap of grey rock filled with caves, many of which were once inhabited by hermits. In one of these, the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, born in Samos in 570 B.C., is said to have hidden from the tyrant Polycrates. To reach the cave, you have to climb a marked trail and then haul yourself up by a rope. If that is too much, you can mount the nearby 320 white steps instead to the 11th-century chapel Panaghia Sarantaskaliotissa, nestled in the mouth of a different cave and decorated with faded frescoes of the same period.

A hike on Kerkis took me to another cave chapel, Panaghia Makrini, once used as a hermitage and thought to have been built in the ninth century. Inside, 12th-century frescoes of saints, jackals, birds and goats are still visible. Like most of the miniature country chapels of Greece, it is painted dazzling white.

The south side of the island is where to find sandy beaches, dramatic coastline walks, and most of Samos’ ancient history, including a sixth century B.C. underground aqueduct built by the engineer Eupalinos, who ingeniously designed the tunnel, which is nearly two-thirds of a mile long, to be simultaneously dug from opposite ends to meet in the middle — and so it does.

On my drives across the island, I often passed roadside “bee houses” selling honey. Costas Skallari, a native Samian, runs one of these, The Farm Store, a wooden hut on the south side of Mount Kerkis, near the town of Pirgos, where he was born. As well as honey, he sells the herbs that he collects early every morning, including “mountain tea” made of a wild leaf that is said to cure virtually every ill.

“What I love about Samos,” Costas said, “is that it is quiet and full of nature. People say the refugees have driven away tourists, but I don’t think so. It is a beautiful island for everyone.”

Between my explorations, I continued to drop by Alpha Centre. More refugees were arriving every day, and the camp had grown so overcrowded that people had to wait in line for hours to get a meal, only to find that the food had often run out. When I returned in October, many volunteers were concerned that people would soon be starving and freezing to death in their tents during the winter.

The day before I left, Ayad, Hasan and I talked about the overcrowding and the increased police harassment. “I understand this is their country, and they don’t want us here,” Ayad said. “We all wish we could go home. But we can’t.”

“We only want to be treated as human beings,” Hasan added. “Please, tell the world this.”

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Travel & Escape

Why your hotel mattress feels like heaven (and how to bring that feeling home)

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(NC) Choosing the right mattress is a long-term investment in your health and well-being. To make a good choice for your home, take a cue from luxury hotel-room beds, which are designed to support the sound sleep of tens of thousands of guests, 365 nights a year.

“When we’re shopping for a mattress, we do lab testing, identify the best materials, bring in multiple mattress samples and have our associates test them,” explains David Rizzo, who works for Marriott International. “We ask for ratings on comfort level, firmness, body support and movement disruption. It takes 12 to 18 months just to research and select materials.”

Here, he shares his tips to pick the perfect mattress for your best sleep:

Understand your needs. People have different food and exercise preferences, as well as different sleep cycles. So, it’s no surprise that everyone has unique mattress preferences. Not sure whether a firm or a soft mattress is better? Rizzo says the best gauge is to ask yourself, “Do I wake up with aches and pains?” If the answer is no, you’re golden.

Foam versus spring. All mattresses have a core that is made up foam or innersprings or a combination of the two. Today’s foam-core mattresses contain memory foam — a material engineered by NASA to keep astronauts comfortable in their seats. It’s special because it retains or “remembers” its shape, yielding to pressure from the sleeper’s body, then bouncing back once the pressure is removed.

An innerspring mattress has an encased array of springs with individual coils that are connected by a single helical wire. This wire creates continuous movement across the coil that minimizes disruption if the mattress is disturbed, such as by a restless sleeper. According to Rizzo, the innerspring is “bouncier.”

Temperature preference. Consider how warm or cool you like to sleep, and factor in the construction of the mattress to find one with a temperature that suits you. The air space engineered into an innerspring mattress promotes ventilation, which some people find keeps them pleasantly cool. To accomplish the same purpose with a foam mattress (or the foam layer of an innerspring) it may be infused with metal, usually silver or copper, to help dissipate heat and humidity.

Need to test out the right mattress for your needs? Find the right fit during your next trip by booking your stay at marriott.com.

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Travel & Escape

How to make the most of summer travel

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(NC) One of the best parts of our short Canadian summers is the opportunity to enjoy them a little bit extra on long weekends. If you need ideas, check out these creative things to do whether you decide to stay in town or go away.

Do a dinner crawl. Pub crawls are fun for couples, friends and also families with older kids. For an exciting twist that stretches your dollars and lets you taste food from several spots before you get too full, try a dinner crawl. Eat apps at one restaurant, mains at another and dessert at another.

Go on a mini getaway. You don’t need to go very far to enjoy a vacation – exploring a Canadian city over a summer weekend is great way to treat yourself to a holiday. Whether it’s checking out the museums in Toronto or the parks in Vancouver, there’s something for everyone. For upgraded benefits, special experiences and the best rates guaranteed, join Marriott Bonvoy and book direct on Marriott.com.

Host a potluck. Perfect whether you’re staying at home or going to your cottage, gather friends and family together for some food and fun. A potluck is an easy and affordable way to host a big get-together and lets everyone try something new and swap recipes. Make the festivities extra special with a fireworks potluck, too – ask everyone to bring some fireworks or sparklers and put on a light show. Just be sure to follow local regulations for consumer fireworks.

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Lottoland: Here’s why Canadians love it!

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Lotteries have been in existence for many centuries now and it’s an open secret that most people enjoy playing a good lottery.

Asides from gauging your own luck, the thrill of playing, the anticipation of the results and the big wins every now and then is something most people look forward to. Since 1982, the lottery has been in Canada, but now there is a way to play both the Lotto and other international lotteries from Canada, all from the comfort of your home.

With Lottoland, all you need to do is register and get access to numerous international lotteries right from their website. The easy-to-use interface has all the information you need, and great amount of care has been taken to ensure that the online experience is similar—and even better—than if players were to visit each location personally.

The Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries are hitting record highs with their prize money, in what the organizers claim to be the largest jackpot in the history of the world. However, the U.S. has gambling laws that are state controlled and buying your ticket through an online broker can be considered gambling.

“No one except the lottery or their licensed retailers can sell a lottery ticket. No one. Not even us. No one. No, not even that website. Or that one,” Powerball’s website says.

Therefore, to stand a chance to win the $1.5 billion-dollar lottery jackpot it means you have to purchase your lottery tickets directly from a licensed retailer such as Lottoland.

Since 2013, Lottoland has been operating in Canada, rapidly growing in popularity amongst Canadians. Due to its easy of use and instant access to lotteries that were previously considered inaccessible—as Canadians had to travel all the way to the U.S. to purchase tickets in the past—Lottoland has attracted lots of visitors.

Currently, there about 8-million players on Lottoland, a figure that points to the reliability of the website.

One of the core values of Lottoland is transparency and that’s why a quick search on the website would show you a list of all of their winners. Recently, a Lottoland customer was awarded a world-record fee of $137 million CND.

Also, due to the incredibly slim chances of winning the grand prize not everyone would take home mega-dollar winnings, but there are substantial winnings every day.

Securing your information online is usually one important factor when registering on any platform and as the site explains, “Lottoland works very hard to verify your information.”

The site has a multi-verification process that will ensure that you confirm your identity and age before giving you a pay-out. However, in the rare case that a player has immediate luck and wins a lottery before completing the verification process, Lottoland will hold on to the winnings until they complete your verification.

While this might seem like a tedious process, it is very important as these safety features would ensure that your information wasn’t stolen and ultimately your winning routed to another account.

Lottoland is licensed with the National Supervisory Bodies For Lotteries in several countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, Ireland and Australia—where it is called a wagering license. Typically, most gaming companies don’t establish insurance companies as it entails that their activities have to be transparent and the must be highly reputable in the industry.

Nonetheless, Lottoland has no issues meeting up to these standards as they have established themselves as the only gaming sector company who has its own insurance company—an added advantage for new and existing users.

Lotteries aren’t the only games Canadians enjoy playing and Lottoland recognizes this by providing players with other types of gaming. As an industry leader, video designers of online games often make them their first choice when it comes to publishing their works.

Online games such as slots, blackjack, video poker, baccarat, keno, scratchoffs, roulette and many others are always on offer at the Lottoland Casino. There’s also the option of playing with a live dealer and a total of over 100 games.

Lottoland has received numerous rave reviews from its growing list of satisfied customer and their responsive customer service agents are always available to answer any questions users may have, along with solving challenges they may have encountered.

More and more Canadians are trooping to Lottoland in droves due to the unique experience of going to a casino without having to leave the comfort of their homes.

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