Conversations about Coming Home

Last night I attended a talk by Ian McCallum at the Yellowwood Café in Howick. He has just completed his expedition from the west to east coast of Southern Africa linking various elephant migratory routes and publicising the need for environmental action by focusing on pachyderms, a key species in the ecology of wild Africa and India. You can read about this trip on www.tracksofgiants.org

There are many things that struck me about Ian. He has an aura about him that is not just because of who he is (he is a qualified and working psychiatrist, author, poet, wilderness guide and expedition leader) but rather because he knows he is because of everyone and everything else. He is a true child of uBunthu: “I am because you are”.

He is thankful for everything and everyone that has coloured his life and allowed him to connect to this earth. He is practical as well, and made a strong point in the beginning of his talk of thanking everyone for very little thing they may do for the environment, no matter how small the action. It is these small actions that will make the groundswell that can change the world we leave to our children.

He told of a talk he did at Epworth primary School earlier that day. It was in a room filled with caricatures of wild animals. It was a happy room. He asked the children what they would feel if there were no more animals left in the world.

After some hesitation the first hand went up. “I would feel sad”, the child spoke.

I am sure Ian danced about the stage as he did with us, filled with energetic passion for the earth. He looked for more answers. It came from another child: “I would feel it was our fault!”

And the last child spoke out, sadness stinging his face: “what would we leave our children?”

His expedition was not so much about the giants of the bush as much as the giant within each of us that can change the world. We can all achieve so much, if we commit and try. The tragedy is not that we do not achieve, but that we aim too low.

At dinner I spoke with Ian about his first trail, which he undertook in 1981 with Ian Player and Maqubu Ntombela. It had a profound effect on him and his understanding of the world and himself. I remember it doing the same for me. The Wilderness Leadership School Erythrina leaf emblem encapsulates a simple philosophy of co-existence with the environment and one’s self: each of the three leaflets represents a core relationship in man’s life: Man to Man, Man to God and Man to nature.

I asked Ian why he had chosen psychiatry. “Because it was the one thing I did not want to do. So when I asked myself why I didn’t want to do it, and investigated it, I found it to be the very essence of medicine.” It echoed in me. I remember my time in the bush bring a clarity to my soul to explore the mind through medicine. I never got to being a psychiatrist, but certainly benefited from them.

Ian said of his first trail that he felt like “he had come home.” I know the feeling, and his inspiring talk made me feel like I had seen home again.

Constantinople 6 May 2011

Here is an answer:

Some Fill With Each Good Rain
There are different wells within your heart.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far too deep for that.

In one well
You have just a few precious cups of water,
That “love” is literally something of yourself,
It can grow as slow as a diamond
If it is lost.

Your love
Should never be offered to the mouth of a
Stranger,
Only to someone
Who has the valor and daring
To cut pieces of their soul off with a knife
Then weave them into a blanket
To protect you.

There are different wells within us.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far, far too deep
For that.
It’s a long story and it’s not my poem. It belongs to a Sufi poet, Hafiz, from the 14th Century.

I am so confused about going to Istanbul. I have on this same hard drive copies of letters written by my father dated 21 August 1974, my 12th birthday. Co-signed by his friend George Bizos. To the Minister of Foreign Affairs of South Africa, the Ambassador to Pretoria of the United States Government and the Ambassador to Pretoria of Her Majesties Government. All decrying the behaviour of the Turkish government in occupying Cyprus. This shortly after we had returned from Greece. I remember the morning clearly, at Hotel Solon in Tolo, where my father took my brother and told him that he was the head of the family now. My father had been conscripted to fight in the Greek Army. The nation was tuned in to black and white TV with military marches blaring while Turkey invaded Cyprus with American hardware. Nothing has changed, in the week that America assassinated Osama bin Laden. Or murdered him. For what are we if we stoop to the same level as our enemies, if not the Devil himself?

In 2002 I wrote this about a Turkish Takeaway called Cappadocia in Edinburgh. The piece was called The Lost Immigrants:

The story starts with me not being too happy about supporting a Turkish business.  But then again, they were the closest thing to family for me in Scotland. Still, I remember Nicosia and the Red Line that divided families and destroyed lives. It was and it still is sad. But one of the soundest principles by which one can live is never to generalise. It is useful having such basic principles. We always learn our lessons the hard way.

So best not to generalise, even about the Americans. Who can imagine the details of their existence?

Who can imagine the details of anyone’s existence?

So here I sit in  Turkish Airline’s new Airbus en route to Istanbul. Originally to see the Grand Prix, with Caterina trying to open all sorts of doors at the race for us to enjoy. So far the best seems lunch with Mercedes on Saturday.
But the best after some thought is that I am going to what was Constantinople, the seat of Byzantium Christendom, to visit Agia Sophia. And at the same time see feel the streets Hafiz and Rumi walked on, perhaps to find an old book of his poems.

Only to discover that Ataturk banned Sufis. They are now tolerated but are not a force within the confusion of this non-secular nation of Islam.

And so we arrived in a cold and wet Istanbul. I exercised a bit then slept and then we made our way to Istanbul Park, the Grand Prix circuit on the Asian side. The first Formula 1 car that started up and shook out of the garage got me feeling like a little boy with a new bicycle. Pure unbridled joy! I took lots of pictures, mainly panned shots and had a lot of fun. It was cold in the stands.

That night I wrote in my journal:  Wow, I can see why Alexander the Great was enamoured by the Persians. They are a gentle, beautiful, quiet nation,  full of life and joy and passion. Let me try explaining the appreciation:
Turkey works. They have an economy that is still growing at 6 % per annum. The city of Istanbul has a real European capital infrastructure. There are huge suspension bridges over the Bosporus Straits, highways and intersections with automatic toll registration. They have their own airline fleet. Friendly airline staff, even friendly ground staff. An ethos on looking after tourists. Sure, the Turks like to bargain in a shop, or worse in the Grand Bazaar. And there are beggars. And they are Muslim. But the founder of modern day Turkey, in the beginning of the 20th century, outlawed the burka  and adopted the Latin alphabet instead of the Arabic script. The hotel we stayed in was clean, did not smell of smoke and the staff were quiet and unobtrusive as they went about their work. I was walking up one flight of steps from Dom’s room on  the last morning , at about 8am, carrying a small suitcase and one of the cleaners insisted that he carry the bag for me. Genuinely. And was disappointed when I would not let him.

But there is a negative dichotomy. The Turks do not have freedom of speech. There are over 300 journalists and outspoken professionals in detention. Prison really. They have internal strife with the Kurds. They have odd bedfellows in Libya and the USA. They are very chauvinistic.

And they have invaded the northern half of Cyprus. That hurts. The fact that they conquered Constantinople shows their military and organizational superiority. And I wonder at the military and organizational inferiority of my home nation, the Greeks. Still resting on their laurels proclaiming them as the fathers of democracy. Pity they have not realised that has no value in the financial bale out package offered by the European Union.

The Roman empire ruled over the Greeks for a few centuries and the Greeks have got over it. The Macedonians ruled over large tracts of the near and Middle East and they seem to have got over it. The Crusades stole the Lions from Agia Sophia’s towers and left them in St Mark’s Square in Venice. The Ottomans seem to have got over it.

The epitome of a name change, for those of us familiar with South African modern history. Istanbul became the new name for Constantinople when the Ottomans conquered Byzantine in the 1400’s.  Greeks still refer to it as “Konstatinopouli”, somewhat romantically and also bitterly, the way hard liners would refer to Verwoerdburg instead of attending a cricket test at Centurion.

So yes, Turkey is complicated. Even for a South Africa Greek with Cypriot family.

Agia Sofia

Conversations about Calendars

The Jewish Passover celebrations began yesterday. The Passover commemorates God’s gift of saving their firstborn while the Egyptian firstborn were struck down in the plague. This Passover, in synagogues all over the world, the first born sons of Jews will recite thanks to God for saving their kind. It is an incredible tradition.

The Passover lasts seven days. At the end of those seven days in Biblical times the Romans crucified Jesus Christ. The Jews base the dates of Passover on their calendar which is lunisolar, or semi- lunar. They have an intercalary month which takes place seven times in 19 years; this is called the Metonic cycle, after the Greek astronomer Meton, who proposed it about 432 B.C. to express the relation between a lunar and solar year. The Jewish Diaspora traditionally added an extra day to their Passover just to be safe, in case the local calendar was wrong.

The early Christians based their calendar on the same lunisolar system which was integrated into the Julian Calendar, named after Julius Caesar and which ruled time from 45 B.C until 1582 A.D.. This calendar was not astronomically correct in that although it had a leap year, the actual variance was slightly less than the six hours per year that the Emperor calculated. So in fact as time progressed the calendar was being thrown out of pace.

The Gregorian calendar was adopted by the Western World in 1582, when by the political plotting and the use of the Julian Calendar Easter was falling too early in March. The principle of calculating this Spring Festival was, and still is, based, on the vernal equinox that occurs in March. Vernal implies spring (as it would be in the northern hemisphere) and the equinox is an astronomical description for that time of year when the sun is perpendicular to the equator. Easter is calculated on the first Sunday after full moon after the vernal equinox. The Orthodox Easter has to fall at the end of the Passover, which is historically correct. More importantly, the Gregorian calendar has fixed the vernal equinox on 21 March, when in fact it varies astronomically by a day each way. In addition, the Gregorian calendar uses an “ecclesiastical” full moon, and not the astronomical full moon in the calculation.

So this year the Orthodox Easter and the Catholic Easter should coincide by virtue of the moon and the vernal equinox, but in fact the Orthodox Easter is delayed by one week to fall at the end of the Passover.

Greece remained true to her stubborn nature in that she was the last to adopt the Gregorian calendar, as late as 1928, after the population exchange destroyed the Levant. The yellow beast, China, only adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1949.

It is a fascinating moveable feast, the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter. The one Christian church follows the Jewish rite, while the other has chosen to rule the astronomical calendar with an average day, 21 March and an arbitrary full moon. The Jewish word for the Passover is pesach. The Greek word for Easter is pascha. Not too dissimilar in sound?

The Paschal Sheep in Alberton, circa 1970.

 

Conversations about Arcadia

Arcadia is home to many famous ideas and people.

In modern times, anyone with a surname ending in -poulos is usually an entrepreneur extraordinaire. Both in Greece and as the Diaspora that flowed out of Greece to make a new life in the States, Australia and Africa.

Arcadia is home to the uprising of the Greeks against the 400 year old Ottoman Rule in 1821. The bodies of the Muslims lay so thick on the ground after the massacre at Tripolitsa, now Tripolis, that the hero Kolokotronis said his horse’s hooves did not touch the earth when he entered the city in victory.

It is home to the ancient City of Megalopolis. The not so famous historian Polybius was borne there, and wrote of the growing Roman dominance of the Greek states. His art as an historian lay in trying to explain the events rather than just recounting the events.

Argos, another ancient city, which means slow, is on the coast. Slow comes from the poor soil and the time it takes to grow crops. This ancient city belonged to Agamemnon. It is connected by an aquifer to the ancient city of Mantinea forty kilometres away. These ruins lie in the plains between our village of Kakouri and Tripolis. If you could follow the underground waters from a sinkhole near Nestani (a neighbouring village) you would arrive underwater at the Dini Spring in the Argolid Gulf. Normally we stand on the end of the cliff and look out over the gulf, and you can see the fresh water clearing the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea.

In fact, legend has it that Poseidon, god of the sea, was born and left at a sheepfold near a spring. His mother hid the birth from his father, the Titan Cronus who was eating his children in fear of a revolt by them. So Poseidon was born in a landlocked plain and made his way to the sea via this underground waterway.

Arcadia is home also to Virgil’s Eclogues. He established Arcadia as a pastoral Utopia in the arts. These inspired Nicolas Poussin’s famous painting Et in Arcadia Ego:   I too am in Arcadia. The three shepherds a looking at this inscription on a tomb, one of the discussing it with a beautiful woman standing alongside.

If you look at this painting it looks as if they are looking at the tomb as the doorway to another world, in which Arcadia will be within them.

Arcadia is a fascinating place. I imagine one of these shepherds looks like someone in the family. I just cannot place them.

Shepherds of Arcadia painting by Nicolas Poussin 1630: Et in Arcadia Ego