In the book Natural Born Heroes, author Christopher McDougall, describes the people of Crete as fierce and agile in mind, body, and soul. Observing this firsthand was an experience I will never forget.

Mama Maria is a sixty-five year old native Cretan. Late in the night, she maneuvered a stick shift car through the mountains to rescue us from our futile attempt to travel to one of the most remote villages on the island.

I was frazzled from nearly four hours of relearning to drive a manual transmission (first time in seventeen years) while simultaneously reading road signs which were literally all Greek to me. At one point, the car rolled backwards after failing to make it up a steep incline. I panicked. I put on the emergency break and went for a walk.

By the time I calmed down, it was night. Dain informed me that help was on the way. That’s when Mama Maria Kirkini arrived. Her first words were, “Don’t worry. Ola Cala (everything is OK) It’s an adventure.”

For about thirty minutes, we followed her into the night, driving up and down the Asterousia Mountains, dodging fallen rock debris. We finally parked the car at the edge of a cliff. I put my feet on the earth and my nervous energy immediately dissipated.

A full moon lit the sky overhead. A few steps forward was a drop off of a few hundred feet. Below, I could see moonlight reflecting off the Mediterranean Sea. The waves crashed against the rocky shore, and as they melded back into the sea, my thoughts went with them. I was fully in my heart again, and I could feel the peace.

Mama Maria spoke, “This is paradise.”

The next morning we awoke to a dreamlike scene. Aside from Mama Maria, it seemed like Dain and I were the only people who existed in this place.

We were inhabiting Tries Ekklisies, a tiny village on the southern coast of Crete. During the off-season, less than a dozen families live there. During the spring and summer months, about 300 hundred families inhabit the village. It was now off-season.

During World War II, the Germans invaded Crete. Local storytellers explain that many of the Cretan men were high in the mountains fighting. The women, at sea level, waited, with pitch forks and sharp garden tools in hand, to kill off the German paratroopers invading from the sky. British, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers allied with Cretan resistance fighters, who struggled for freedom and dignity. From the coast of Tries Ekklisies, Cretans aided these allied soldiers in their escapes to the Middle East by submarines other means.

The history was palpable. We could feel it alive in the spirit the Cretan people, a people tough as nails with hearts as soft as they come.

Mama Maria lived in a beautiful stone home built on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. She built the home with her own two hands, and asked for help from only one other person. The construction included about 115 steep steps down the cliff which connected to an apartment building which Maria had also built herself.

Dain and I rented the apartment for the month. It was in pristine condition. I asked Mama Maria how she learned construction. She told me she was self-taught.

“I am open minded. I watch my father. I ask people who know what they are doing. Then I try it. It is not perfect. But I did it myself,” she said.

Looking at the home, an untrained eye would never detect any imperfection. It was a solid structure, multi-level, with fireplaces, tile floors, running water, multiple bedrooms, a patio for entertaining, a garden for growing, and a place to store the fresh snails that Mama Maria handpicks from the mountainsides at dawn on the rainy mornings.

Before retirement, Mama Maria had worked aboard large ships as a telegrapher, using Morse code. She refused to slow down after retirement.

One day, we asked what she was up to, and Mama Maria told us that she needed to go to her mother’s house to work on the roof. Maria was very concerned because a few days prior, she had driven by her mother’s home, and she saw her 98 year-old-mom working on the roof.

“We have Duracell batteries built-in. It’s in our DNA,” Maria said.

Mama Maria is an extraordinary Cretan woman who embraces life, moment-by-moment, with humor, hospitality, dance, laughter, and a passion for hard work.

She is someone I wish everyone could have the joy of knowing, and someone who is forever a part of us now. I am so grateful to be able to share her essence with you.

After nearly a month of bonding with her, we felt like we had known and loved Mama Maria for our entire lives.

We said a very difficult goodbye with tears in our eyes, and embraced her parting words, “If you are open minded, you can do anything. Stay open.”