The community extended from sea level to peaks of more than 2000 metres and had three climatic zones with variations ranging from subtropical to subalpine. The winter was cold and rainy and usually lasted from October to March. The rest of the year was warm and dry. The lower parts had a typical Mediterranean climate with long, hot summers and short, rainy winters.
The hill zone extended from the coastal plains to about 800 metres and included the village of Agios Ioannis. The average monthly temperatures in the summer was almost as high as for the coastal plains, but in the winter the temperature was much lower. The average yearly rainfall was more than twice the average for the coastal zone. The winter was longer than on the coast, with a lot of rain and occasional snow.
Almost constant fog made the winter months damp and cold. The sun usually came through the fog for a short while every day and raised the temperature. In January and February there were longer periods with a maximum temperature of 7-8 degrees C, but in June, July and August the temperature at night seldom went below 20 degrees C.
A large part of the hills and slopes around the village was covered by pine and cypress forest, with frequent occurrance of holly. This was a rare phenomenon in Crete. The lack of forest is usually blamed on the grazing of goats and sheep, but agricultural terracing will, when no longer maintained, result in acceleration of erosion. The cutting of wood for production of charcoal, lime and fuel has also played a significant role.
In the upper part the Cretan wild goat – the agrimi – could be found. It is a very shy animal and the claim was that it could smell a cigarette several hundred meters away. It is protected and hunting were punished by a heavy fine and a jail sentence. However, it was a not a very well kept secret that it was hunted locally. We were served agrimi on several occasions, and it does taste good. During our stay we observed a visiting Greek being shocked when he realized he had eaten agrimi – an incident that was retold with great pleasure by the villagers later.
The settlement of Ayios Ioannis was a walled village situated in a small valley or bowl, running roughly north-east to south-west, at about 750 metres above sea level. Most of the vineyards, gardens and olive trees were found within the village walls, in the lowest part of the bowl or depression.
The koinotis of Agios Ioannis had its own village president and a village council with four members. They were elected for four years at a time by the local population. Their main duties were to collect agricultural statistics, keep vital statistics, take a census every ten years, and maintain the wells, paths and walls in the koinotis. The election in Agios Ioannis was not an election for a political party. There was only one list and the president had the job for altogether 20 years. He was highly regarded and received all 36 votes in the 1978 election. A total of 84 people were registered as voters in the village, but some of them lived as far away as USA or Canada. Since voting by mail was not allowed, few of these voted in national or local elections.
There were also councils for the school and the church, and there was one agricultural policeman who was responsible for both the koinotitis of Agios Ioannis and Agia Roumeli. The nearest national police were found in Anopolis and Chora Sfakion.
With the exception of the government positions of village president, agricultural policeman and teacher, there were only two occupations for men in Agios Ioannis; shepherd and farmer. Nobody was doing only one or the other, but a combination of both. In addition one man worked as a part-time muleteer. Every family owned some land and trees, and all households had, or used to have goats and sheep. In many cases a family with a large flock of animals would also own many olive trees, large vineyards and plots.
The mailman came twice a week on foot. He walked from Anopolis in the morning and blew his post horn upon arrival in Agios Ioannis. People rushed down to what passed for a village square to see if he had brought any mail. During the winter months he continued down to Agia Roumeli by the way of Kakos Poros, the steep path straight down to the chapel of Agios Paulos.
The only telephone in the village was located in one of the houses. Anyone calling from the outside had to wait or call back while the family of that house fetched – or called the person from the top of their house. The telephone failed rather frequently for shorter periods during our stay and was once out of order for 40 days. There were no private telephone conversations – everything was shared with the inhabitants of the house and the other villagers or guests that happened to be present at that moment.
The main water source for Ayios Ioannis was a new, government-built cistern in the upper part of the village. The water level in the cistern was high enough during spring and summer (March or April to August or September) to allow the water to go through steel pipes to taps around the village. The rest of the year water had to be fetched from the main cistern.
However, every year the water flow would stop for shorter or longer periods of time, and people had to draw water directly from the cistern until the water was running again. The summer of 1980 was especially bad, and people were called in every couple of weeks to help fix the communal plumbing. In the autumn and winter months there was less water in the cistern, and water could only be had by using a bucket. Many people would also collect rainwater in the winter, to use for washing and to water animals.
There were also ten old wells in the lower part of the village; about half of them still had water in them and used mainly to water vegetables by the people who had plots nearby and sometimes for the animals. Until the new cistern was constructed, these were the main water source for the village and are believed to have been so since the early Byzantine period.
During a drought, which the villagers claim would happen every two to four years, the wells would not be able to supply the village (which was much larger in the past) with enough water.
During these periods water had to be brought down from the cave of Kormokopou, several hundred metres above and one hour and 15 minutes walk from the village, that had water all through the year. When the wells were completely dry, all the water needed for people, animals and plants had to be brought from the cave. Since donkeys, mules, sheep and goats need many litres of water every day, every able-bodied person had to help carry the water, since the path was difficult, and could only be used by pedestrians. A grown man might carry as much as 30 or 40 liters of water on his back. Obviously this must have been a tremendous job for the villagers in addition to their normal work, and the previous scarcity of water defined the carrying capacity of the village, limited its economy, and set an ecological limit to its growth.
The eparchy (province) of Sfakia had a gymnasium in Chora Sfakion with about 60 students. The western part of Sfakia had primary schools in Chora Sfakion, Anopolis, Livaniana, Agios Ioannis and Agia Roumeli.
The school in Ayios Ioannis had five children in 1978/79. From about 1965 the number of students had declined rapidly. In the 1950s and the early 1960s there were between 20 and 28 students, in 1970/71 there were 13, in 1975/76 eight, and in 1980/81 there were only three students. All the grades were taught at the same time in a single classroom by their one teacher.
The teachers changed almost every year. They were usually young and unexperienced, coming directly from the Teachers Colleges. After completing their education they had to serve one year in a remote village. Few volunteered to stay on a second year.
The children spent about four hours a day in school. In the afternoon they would frequently visit the teacher to be helped with their homework. In the evening the children could often be found doing homework in the middle of a group of people. Their family, relatives and neighbours would sit around chatting and playing cards while the children were studying.