by O Bod
... where Nero finds himself in other localities as he formulates his plan ...
Of All Places
Sometimes it's the Journey
Chapter 3: A Day in the Life
When two phenomena occur at the same time, one might suspect that they are related; perhaps even one of them is the cause of the other, like thunder following lightning. Other times they are both caused by a third phenomenon, like rain and lightning are both caused by Cumulonimbus clouds. Other times it is just a coincidence.
But when I opened my eyes to the monotonous sounds of railroad tracks and the changing scenery outside the window, I knew it was no coincidence - I was on a train. There must have a bang or something that woke me, for the gentle swaying and rhythmic sounds of the train were perfect for sleeping, and I felt I could happily sleep there forever. But where was I? Yes, I was definitely on a train, that much I could tell. I looked out the window at the snowy landscape. Endless light-barked birch trees were all I could see. There was some chatter in the train, and I became aware that there were others there, across the aisle, but they were conversing in some foreign language. Then again, 99% of the languages are foreign to me, and then some. I looked out the window again, and I saw we were passing by a small village. Big stone houses, chimneys, a church, a billboard. Wait, the writing there wasn't quite English, was it? Wasn't that Cyrillic? Were we in Russia? Visions of old Le Carre' spy novels came to mind. But, wait, that is long past. We are friends now, aren't we?
Cause and Effect
The train rambles on, and I continue to look out the window. I glance at the wristwatch of the guy nearest me, and see it is almost 4 in the afternoon, but already it looks like dusk. It is dark early, and bitter cold. Why do these often occur together? Does darkness cause coldness, or it is the other way around? Or perhaps there is yet a third factor here that causes both, such as lack of sun? I'll have to check on that when I have a chance.
But right now the fact that the sun sets at 4 o'clock is bothering me, gnawing at my brain. Because telling the time by the sun should be rather simple: Sun rises at 6 in the morning, at noon it's at its zenith, and then sets at 6 in the evening. But if it sets at 4 in the afternoon, that throws the whole theory out the window! What use is the sun if it's 2 hours off its schedule? I'll have to think it over ...
The train pulls into the station, and I see a sign MOCKBA on the platform. Hey, I can understand Cyrillic, I realize happily. Everybody gets up and I follow suit. With my light hair and mustache I fit right into the crowd, and I am herded along down the platform to a ticket queue, then down a long escalator, into a subway train, and a couple of stops later I emerge into the sunlight.
I am practically pushed out of the station, and find myself walking in a crowd towards a large square. These Muscovites seem to be in a hurry, at least when going in or out of a Metro station. Then again, underground trains the world over seem to do that to people.
I free myself and step aside to get my bearings, and then admire what I see. I am standing in the middle of a huge square. On my right is a tall imposing red wall, the last tower of which has a big red star over it. This, I recall, is the once-dreaded Kremlin, the center of government of Communist Russia. To my left is a very long building, 4 or 5 stories tall, which I might guess is a department store (such as Macy's) if I were in New York. Directly in front of me, though still a distance away, is the most beautiful colorful building I have ever seen. I count no less than 8 onion-shaped spires on top, dominated by 'communist' red and its opposite color, green. So, there I am, in the Red Square, right next to the Kremlin, in the snow, in front of a beautiful Russian church that I am sure I have seen previously on TV, or somewhere.
Despite the years past since the end of the cold war, I don't feel at ease here. The high Kremlin walls with the red stars are intimidating, as are the militia walking around in pairs around the Red Square. What if they ask me for my 'documents'? I duck into a souvenir store, which is anyway a good way to get out of the cold. There are shelves and shelves of those diminishing self-containing 'babushka' dolls (though the sign says 'Matryoshka Dolls'), and another few shelves of imitation Faberge eggs. I wonder if the real/authentic ones could be bought anywhere, and if so - at what price?
"We have a special on caviar now".
"Oh?" I raise my head.
"The finest quality, blue-label beluga, in a gift-suitable one-ounce jar, only $40".
"How much for that fur-lined hat over there?"
"That one is $15, but it is for, how you say, costumes. Real fur hat cost $120, but it is worth it."
"I'll take the costume one. It looks warm. What's that emblem on the front?"
"Perfect. I'll take it."
Now, with this outfit and my moustache I should look just like one of the crowd.
I don my new hat, pull it over my ears, and step outside into the Russian winter. Straight into the path of a pair of policemen, with a muzzled dog on leash. They stop, look at me and then at my hat, smile (one even seems to giggle), and then move on. I am pleased with myself - the hat worked.
Moving into the middle of the square, I see an ice-skating rink on my left and some kind of low building on my right. Staring at the Cyrillic writing over the entrance, I decipher it and read aloud: 'Lenin'.
"It's closed on Fridays", somebody says.
I turn to my right and see an Asian-looking fellow.
"So I guess I'll have to come back again tomorrow," I answer.
"Not much to see, really. I mean, if you've never been to a mausoleum before, then maybe..."
"In Beijing. There's Mao's mausoleum. We called it the Mao-soleum", he chuckles. "Might as well see this one, I suppose. Remember not to put your hands in your pockets, though - the guards may interpret that as disrespectful."
"So you're Chinese?"
"No, no, no. No. Japanese. Been traveling for over a year now. Takahashi."
I don't know if that's his first or last name. He looks about 20, perhaps a student. "Nero."
"Where're you're staying?" he asks.
"I dunno. Just arrived by train."
"Come. There's space at the Napoleon hostel. That's where I'm staying."
I walk with him towards the big cathedral at the far end of the square. "Cold war is over, right?" I ask my new companion.
"The war is, anyway. Not too sure about the cold," and he shivers noticeably.
"This hat is holding up fairly nicely. You should get one."
"Yes, about that hat..."
"Never mind. That's one of the famous landmarks here, you know," he says, gesturing towards the colorful cathedral.
"It's beautiful," I agree. "I like the striped onion-shaped-spires."
"Yup, anyone who worships onions is a friend of mine," Takahashi laughs.
We make a left past the skating rink and walk on. "Tell me," I ask. "Why is it so cold here?"
"What do you mean? Moscow is at a fairly northern latitude, and it's winter, so it's cold". I knew that already, having been to Alaska.
"But soon we'll be in the hostel, which has heat and warm blankets", he continues.
"Why do blankets make you warm", I persist.
"Blankets and warm clothes don't make you warm?"
"Uh-uh. They insulate you. A blanket keeps the cold on the outside and your own warmth on the inside. A thicker blanket, or one that doesn't conduct heat well, is better at insulation. But water and air can be insulators, too. A diver's wet suit uses water to insulate you from the colder water in the sea, and do you know why a fan cools you off on a hot day? Because it blows away the hot air that surrounds you, the insulation. Did you ever think of that?"
We walk on in silence for a while, passing banks, bars and shops. When we come to a busy intersection with no crosswalk, Takahashi ducks down into a metro station and I follow. Small stores line the walls, selling cakes or cameras or sewing accessories. But we don't get on a train - we just use the underground passage to get across the road.
When we emerge back on street level, I venture out of the blue: "Why are mountain-tops cold? Mountaintops should be hot, because the rays have less atmosphere to go through ...
Takahashi has to think for a minute. "Well, I suppose the thinner air makes it colder." "So low-pressure causes it to be cold?"
"All else being equal".
I still don't understand. It was back to the cause-and-effect conundrum. "So does pressure cause heat, or does heat cause pressure, or is there a third factor that causes both?"
"Well, they're both manifestations of the same thing."
"Stuff, matter, molecules."
"No molecules: Stillness, no interaction, no pressure, no heat. Many molecules: Movement, friction, pressure, heat."
"So you're saying in the extreme case of no pressure, a vacuum, you also have extreme coldness, absolute zero?"
"That's right." And then he adds and smiles: "No matter."
We turn down an alleyway and enter a run-down, dilapidated apartment building. "Fourth floor" my comrade says, and we proceed to climb up. I wonder if 'comrade' is a politically-correct term to use here, in post-cold-war Moscow. Takahashi climbs quickly, 2 stairs at a time, as if danger might be lurking in one the doorways. I half-expect to see hookers or junkies at each landing, but we make it up with no mishap.
After pressing the buzzer, the door opens into a modern hostel. Misha is sitting at the desk, doing something on a computer. She shakes hands with me, hands me a map of Moscow, and then proceeds to give me a tour of the place. It is an immaculate 3-bedroom apartment, converted into a backpackers'-hostel, with a sparkling clean kitchen and tiled bathroom, an entrance hall and the rest of the place is spacious wood-paneled rooms with 4 large bunk-beds in each. She hands me a towel and beddings. "Just pick a bed. It's pretty empty this time of year," she says, then adds: "There are 2 Internet stations, if you want."
I put down my bag and return to the entrance hall, which doubles as a typical hostel "common room". Four or five backpackers are sitting around, (Danes and Brits, it transpires), watching Sesame Street (a local version) on a big flat-screen TV as they drink Russian beer and leaf through some tour-books. It looks like all the tour-books, as well as maps on the table, are about the "Siberian Express" railroad. Seems that Moscow, or at least this hostel, is merely a stopover on the backpacker route from Western Europe to and from the Far East.
"I'm going home later tonight on that train," Takahashi says. Maybe I'll make one or two stops on the way, in Siberia or Mongolia, and in a week I should be in Beijing, and then catch a ferry back to Japan."
Haven't these people heard of airplanes, I wonder?
"But first I want to make spaghetti sauce, so I have to go to the grocery. Pity I can't pick those onions from the church we saw."
I look at my map. "Pokrovsky Sobor - that's the name of that cathedral?"
"Better known as St. Basil".
"I think you're over-doing it with the spices and herbs."
"Not at all - that's really its name - ask anybody. Ivan the Terrible had it built in the 16th century."
"So you have your onions and basil now?"
"That's right. All I need now is St. Oregano and Holy Garlic to add to my tomato sauce and my divine spaghetti sauce is complete!"
"Watch it, they'll send you to Siberia yet."
"Heading that way anyway."
I take my map to my bunk bed and start to organize my things. I have to get long underwear tomorrow or I'll freeze here. Maybe a pair of fur-lined boots, too - I saw others were wearing those. Gloves, scarf and everything - that's a real winter out there. Don't mess with Russia in the winter-time. Napoleon knew that (funny that this hostel is named after him). I lay down the sheet they gave me, and then struggle to put the quilt into its cover. Finally lying down in bed, I unfold the map and make a plan for tomorrow. The space museum is a must-see - I'd have to take the orange metro line to get there. It is on "PROSPEKT MIRA". I get a note and write it down carefully. I'll use the note to ask people to direct me to the right train and station. Then maybe in the afternoon I'll walk down Arbat Street - they told me at the front desk that it's interesting. But first I decide to go out a bit and explore Moscow's nightlife. In a sec, let me rest my head on the pillow for a minute or two before heading out again.
How can it be morning now? Four others are asleep in my room. The trash can is overflowing with empty beer bottles. I go to the bathroom, noticing on the way that the trash cans in the hall and kitchen are also stuffed with beer bottles. Looks like I missed a wild backpacker party. If this is what they drink everyday, it's no wonder that they have no money to fly...
Seems like the sun rose around 9 am today, which is very puzzling, now that I think of it. Recall that it set yesterday around 4 pm. Why is that puzzling? For one, that means the sun is up only 9 hours, not quite the 12 needed for even a daytime watch. And two, whatever the season, I'd expect the sun to be at its zenith, the mid-point between sunrise and sunset, at 12 noon sharp, not at 12:30, as seems to be the case at hand. Unless it's Summer Daylight Saving Time, in which case it should be 1 o'clock. So there seems to be yet another factor at hand - could it possibly have to do with my location within the current time-zone?
The note worked like a charm, and I emerge at PROSPEKT MIRA station without a hitch, though in the midst of a biting snow flurry. They told me the Soviet Cosmonaut museum should be right there, with its famous pointy corner, but I see no such building. Oh, well, I want breakfast, anyway. A MacDonald's is standing right there, and I start to walk towards it, but then have a change of heart as I decide I want to try some authentic local breakfast. I do an about-face to try and find a cafor something, but as the snow starts stinging my face I make another about-face and head up the steps to good ol' Mac's.
83 rubals buys me a ham-and-egg muffin and a cup of coffee, and I sit down at a table to study my map. There are a couple of student-types at my table having pancakes. They are looking at the screen of a laptop, me at my map.
"Need help?" one of them asks.
"Looking for the space museum."
He turns to his friend and asks "Isn't that under renovation?"
"It's been taking them forever - should be done by now".
He turns back to me: "It's another 3 metro stops, anyway."
I thank them, finish my breakfast, brace myself and head back out. Three metro stops later I step out, and there it is: A huge metallic building, one corner of which arches skywards, with a 50's-looking model space-ship perched on the end, aiming towards space. But, alas, the whole complex is fenced in, with construction workers on the roof and all over the grounds. Still appears to be closed for renovation ...
Pity. The Russians have every right to be proud of their space program. Even though they worked with a fraction of NASA's budget, they can claim many firsts in the space-race, including the first man in space. They never did put a man on the moon, though. That's what people remember most from that era: The astronauts prancing about in their white space suits on the moon dust. Each step would take them soaring into the air, as every child on the planet knew that gravity on the moon is one sixth of that on earth. I was a boy then, and dreamt that I, too, would one day be an astronaut. But so did every other kid on earth. I still held onto a secret wish that I might reach the moon one day - didn't they say that tourists will be able to get there by the end of the century?
Which century were they talking about? But, wait, didn't I read somewhere that the earth was some 80 times more massive than the moon? And as mass causes gravity, then shouldn't the moon's gravity be 1/80th that of earth? So why is only a 1/6th of earth's gravity? Will have to check up on that some time.
I look at my map again, looking for some other point of interest, and for a minute I consider visiting the Vodka museum, but that means 3 metro switches, something I don't think I can manage. Where else ... Gorky Park has a familiar sound - wasn't there an old movie by that name? It is right on the orange line, too. I jot the station name on the back of my note and duck back into the station. The Russians take great pride in their metro stations, with all their marble and decorations, from the Stalin era (30's).
It is nearly half an hour later when I emerge back into sunlight. The snow has stopped now, but it is still bitter cold. I walk through the park and along the frozen river where scores of artists are hanging up their works. No one seems to be buying (there is no one there besides the artists and me), and the artists are mostly talking to each other, listening to the radio, or playing chess.
At the end of the row a tall ship's mast seems to be hovering over everything else, and when I get nearer I see it is actually a tall statue sitting in the river. My map tells me it is of no other than Peter the Great, the 18th century Russian emperor (or was it tsar?). I take out my camera to take a picture, but it is hard to do so without getting some factory in the same frame. Curious, I consult my map again. 'Red October Chocolate Factory', it says.
Why would Tom Clancy name a book after a chocolate factory? Or was the chocolate factory named after the book? Or are both named after the same thing (such as the Soviet Revolution of 1917). There is a large picture on the factory building of a little girl in a kerchief, though for some reason it reminds me of a painting of a little boy crying.
The Ferris-wheel and the rest of the amusement park in Gorky Park are lifeless in the snow, so I continue across the suspension bridge over the frozen river, and make my way to Arbat Street. It is a long walk, but I've had enough of underground trains for a while. Some of the apartment buildings I pass on the way seem a block long.
Arbat Street is one of those pedestrian walking streets, with restaurants and souvenir stores lining both sides of the street, as well as souvenir and food stands all down the center of the street (how could they sit there all day in this weather?). I am dismayed to see that the same hat I had bought in Red Square could be gotten for half the price at the stalls. It is snowing again, and -10C, and although I am dressed well from head to toe, I still need some respite from the weather every 15 minutes or so, and I stop at several stores on the way.
At this point I feel hungry, and enter a restaurant that looks like a barrel on the outside. Inside it is equally strange-looking, looking like both the outside and the inside of an old ship. I sit by a fish pond with a wooden wheel and am instantly greeted by a pair of waiters.
"I think I want some typical Russian food," I say. "Let's start with Borsht. And then I'd like those Russian-style raviolis, I think they're called pelmeni."
"Sorry, we don't have that."
"This is a Georgian restaurant. We recommend our own version of pelmeni, called Khinkali, which is much better."
When the dish arrives, the waiter waits until I have a bite.
"Well, what do you say?"
"Reminds me of Chinese dim-sum".
I should hurry up if I'm going to do anything else today. With so few daylight hours, the sun will set in the west before I know it. Or does it not set in the West? Probably more like South-West, us being so far north here...
Telling the time by the sun turns out to be not as simple as it sounds. For one thing, it doesn't rise exactly in the east at 6 am, and sets in the west at 6 pm. An extreme example of that fallacy is in the arctic, where the sun doesn't really rise at all on a daily basis: It is always in the sky in the summertime, and never during the winter months. But that's true here, too, in Russia, to some extent: Now the sun is rising around 9 am and setting around 4, so the rising and setting times depend both on your latitude and on the season. And on the local time, of course, which is determined by the governments of the land, which have been known to sometimes declare that the clock should be moved an hour forward or backwards (a.k.a. 'Daylight Savings Time'). Oh, that and your distance from the time-zone border. Because even if the world was exactly and evenly divided into 24 time-zones (which it is not), then a person standing on the eastern edge of a time-zone will witness the sun rising a full hour earlier than one standing on the western edge of the same time-zone. And another fallacy is the sun rising in the East and setting in the West. That probably happens only on the equator, and that only on Equinox days, too, March 21st and September 21st. On all other days, and in all other places, you see the sun rising and setting somewhat to the North or South. How are we going to use a clock based on the sun if it is not consistent?
This 'somewhat' term has been troubling me, but now I recall the term 'fuzzy', or 'fuzzyness' or 'fuzzy logic'. Wasn't the whole idea to relieve ourselves from the stringent accuracy of time-pieces?
Realizing that, I'm starting to think this might work after all. We shouldn't care about minor details like the sun rising a couple of hours late, setting in the south-west (instead of due west), or our relative place in the current time-zone.
Oh, yes, I feel better now. Starting to feel warm and fuzzy inside. Only that I'm outside, and this is Russia, in the winter, so I don't feel that warm ... Only fuzzy, then.
So I'd say that we're good for telling the (approximate) time during the day. Next obstacle: What are going to do about the night?
After lunch, I reach the end of Arbat Street and turn right onto a wide boulevard that leads me to a gold-topped cathedral and then across a bridge to the other side of the river. Walking along the frozen river I get a good view of the Kremlin walls on the other bank. Finally I cross back over the next bridge and find myself in front of St. Basil's Cathedral in the Red Square. The music from the skating rink draws me in, and before I know it I shell out 700 rubals for a pair of skates and I join the crowd. They give me an armband that reads "KATOK" and tell me that I must wear it while I skate. A glance at the rink shows me that most people there have it on. I put it around my left arm and press on the Velcro, then don my skates and join the crowd. They are skating around and around, counter-clockwise, and though most people are skating slowly, talking to each other and enjoying themselves, there are others who speed slalom-like between the skaters and do tricks and jumps. I know how to skate, but I have a habit of swinging my arms from left to right, and in no time my arm-band flies off. I am having a great time.
As I skate, I reflect how ice used to be an impassible obstacle, but humans have a knack for turning every hazard and obstacle into a sport or recreation, be it water, waves, depths, wind, snow, ice, rocks, heights, cliffs ...
Somebody offers to take my picture and e-mail me later, but I doubt it would come out (it is already dusk, even though it is only 4 o'clock in the afternoon...)
Quite an eventful day. It was a good day.
Chapter 4: Follow the Moon
Feels like I've been here forever, though only last week I landed in Thailand. I've settled into a routine of sorts, starting at the ungodly hour of 6 in the morning (or is it 7? Who knows? Who cares? I don't wear a watch anymore), when the rooster, who happens to live under my hut, decides it's daytime, time to get up and at'em, with no exceptions for weekends or holidays. I walk over to the well, stoop down to brush my teeth and wash my face (why is it so low?), then stroll into the bar and nod at Pico, who already knows I want pineapple pancakes for breakfast. It'll be an hour until the pancakes are ready, so I walk a bit up the beach, until the next "holiday village", wondering why one might be preferable over the other. The huts look the same, rate is the same, 50 Baht per day (around $2) per hut, and you'd be pressed to spend over $10 a day here, including 3 meals and even including the snacks we often have on the beach.
'We' being myself and my week-old friends, Antoinette and Kiat, who hark from Holland (though Kiat is originally from Iriyan Jaya, of all places). They are in the hut next to mine, and should probably be up any time soon, if they are as predictable as the rooster.
I saw them first on Khao-San Street, in Bangkok, the day after I landed. It's a busy street, but they stood out and amongst the hundreds of backpackers, who would sometimes be seen alone, or in small groups, or in couples, as was the case at hand. For she was tall, European, blonde, with close-cut hair, while he was short and dark-skinned and Asian-looking and could pass for a local, except that they were both clearly in Thailand for their first time.
Then I saw them again, in the Hall of the Reclining Buddha, while touring The Royal Palace, so it was time to say hello. "Hello", said I.
"Oh yes", she said (obviously the talker of the two), "we are Antoinette and Kiat, from Holland. I think we are staying in the same hostel. I remember your moustache", and she pointed to her own upper lip.
I shake her hand, and then Kiat's.
"Kiat is originally from Iriyan Jaya," she felt obliged to add, "of all places."
"That's the western half of New Guinea", he finally talked.
(I must confess that my knowledge of that part of the world is not what it should be, even though we're not that far from there now, on a global scale ...).
"Collecting gold?" Kiat asked.
"Where do you see gold?"
"Everywhere", and Kiat pointed to some little gold-colored, paper-thin square leaves floating in the wind. I open my hand, and one square floated down and I held it close. It was so thin, it broke to the touch. "It's real gold. They recoat the Buddha every so often, and the gold flakes off, and then they have to recoat it again."
I tried to grab another gold leaf in mid-air, but Kiat frowned at me. Apparently you can happen onto one, but it was considered bad form to start collecting gold from the Buddha.
They say only true friends can critique each other's behavior honestly, so this was my sign - I decided then and there to stick with these guys, at least around Thailand (or until they dumped me, whichever happened first). We returned to Khao-San Street together, on the same tuktuk - turned out we were indeed staying at the same rat-hole. All the backpackers seem to stay on Khao-San road. Besides guest houses, Khao-San boasts restaurants and snack-bars and other businesses a shoestring tourist might seek. The signs on the shops alternate between Thai script and English, with some other languages thrown in. No matter - the pattai tastes wonderful no matter how you spelled it, and I never tire of their fruit-shake, which tastes different every time, as I make an effort to try each flavor. It makes sense to mix the fruits, as it offers a much greater variety (and a challenge, too).
Say you have 4 kinds of fruit: mango, papaya, pineapple, and banana. If you only used one kind of fruit per shake, then you could put only 4 types of fruit-shakes on the menu. But if you could mix them, you could also have: Mango-papaya shake, pineapple-banana shake, mango-pineapple-banana shake, and so on. Wait a minute - wasn't there a formula for this, from high-school days, something with factorials? Or was that Pascal? Guess I'm a bit rusty at this, so let's just count them for now: You have your four basic flavors, add to that six 2-flavor combos, four 3-flavor ones, and the all-included grand 4-flavor shake. I count fifteen fruit shakes. (And then there's the empty-set, too, with no flavors, but that's boring...) Actually I decided that the only combination that makes sense is the 2-flavor one, as only that way one can discern each of the fruits. And the banana/papaya mix takes the cake (in my subjective humble opinion), with the thick consistency of the banana and the exotic freshness of the papaya. I can declare, too, that the food in Thailand, from what I've seen so far, is incredibly yummy and at the same time ridiculously inexpensive.
Anyway, I'm back at the bar now, but where's my pancake? Pico motions me to come back later. Looks like he gave my breakfast away to somebody else. Oh, well... Maybe I'll go dip in the sea for a bit. Wait, I see Kiat by the well now (it's quite rustic/quaint/romantic, the well, now that I think about it, except for the red plastic bucket). Kiat is not stooping down like I did: He's down on his haunches, but balanced on the palms of his feet. Seems he's mastered the Asian squat - he can do it quite comfortably for hours (Me? After 5 minutes like that I have to stand up, or sit on by butt ...). "Hi, Kiat!"
For the next couple of days I followed my new friends around colorful Bangkok. The day after the Palace it was the King's birthday, so we went down at the riverside to watch the regatta. Ancient-styled long crew boats row past, some 30 oarsmen in each. I expected to see them in traditional dress, but they all had on sponsor T-shirts, like Coke, Pepsi, American Express, and some Thai advertisers, too.
Then the three of us went to the market, and Kiat led us through the stalls and introduced us to the wares. The market in Bangkok is something to behold for a westerner. For one thing, I couldn't name anything, not even the giant lotus flower. And nothing seemed even remotely edible, from the stir-fried grasshoppers to the huge breadfruit fruits. Eventually we got a kilo of rambutans, which I thought were hairy, overgrown strawberries. Rambutans are a smallish red-spiked fruit and Kiat showed us how to peel them, remove the pit, and eat the white stuff, which I liked (reminded me a bit of lychee, which they serve for desert in Chinese restaurants where I come from). Kiat seems to know a lot about this part of the world. In the evening he took us to watch Thai boxing.
It was my first live fighting match, of any kind, and Thai boxing I had never seen even on TV. Each match consisted of 5 rounds, 3 minutes each, and was preceded by the boxers praying and bowing all around to some melodic drum beat that entranced them. Then the fighting would begin, with 2 surprisingly skinny opponents in boxing gloves facing each other, fists raised high and stretched towards the opponents face. Gloved fists and all, most of the hitting appeared to be from kicking and kneeing the other guy, with the crowd shouting "ee" or "oo" at each blow. And the crowd seemed actually more interesting than the fighters. They'd shout and call and make complicated hand gestures, which I thought maybe meant placing bets of one kind or another.
But now we are on the little island of Ko Samet, It isn't quite a Gauguin painting of Tahiti, but it's about as close as it could get for me: White sand, coconut trees, natives in colorful clothes, and even some topless women (albeit westerners). There are bungalows amongst the trees on the beach, a lazy restaurant, and a well for bathing. The act of drawing water from the well and pouring the bucket over you for a shower seems natural here and adds to the tranquility.
I sit on the beach there for a while. A lone local guy trudges along the beach, with a stick balanced on his shoulders and a basket hanging on either end. He offers me his wares. Why not? I buy one of the strange items without haggling (they are only a few pennies each). It appears to be some sort of food, wrapped inside banana leaves. I open one carefully, sniff it, and then have a little bite. A coconut sweet, it seems. Yummy. I buy a few more for my friends, and then the vendor continues on to the next beach.
Rendezvous in the Sky
Becky is a graduate student, in her early twenties. She is on the island for a few days with her friend Atajan, who harks from Turkey. He has a small tourist agency in the Cappadocia region in south-east Turkey, which he says is a must-see. "I can arrange a hot-air balloon ride for you over the sand-houses", he offers. Becky agrees with him, that it is a beautiful area, and of archeological interest too. She is English, but makes frequent trips to Turkey, being a 'fabric historian'. I want to ask what that means, but it strikes me as funny, so I refrain. Doesn't Billy Joel have a song with a 'real-estate-novelist'? What's the world coming to - there aren't enough professions to go around, so now they are combining them, like fruit shakes? I muse about that for a minute, and then decide I should be a bio-genetic green-grocer when I grow up.
I tell Atajan about my observations of the moon, and find him to be a man of my heart.
"You should see an eclipse", Atajan suggests.
"Why, have you seen one?"
"Two, actually. My web site says I have experience in eclipse sightings. It's really something".
"Don't they happen, like, once in a century, and always so far away that you have to hike through the jungle with a machete for a week, and then you get to see it for like 30 seconds?"
"Not at all. The two I saw were both in the past decade, and within driving distance of my home".
"But I've heard about these 'eclipse-chasers' who go all over the world for that, and they seem to me, well, like Star-Trek fans, or those guys who have nothing better to do than to see Rocky Horror 1000 times".
Atajan smiles. "I suppose that every pastime has die-hards who take it to an extreme, but witnessing a total eclipse really is an experience."
In the evening, after a dinner of freshly-caught and grilled fish, Atajan tells us about eclipses. "It's quite an amazing coincidence that both the sun and the moon appear about the same size from earth. About half-a-degree, if you really want to know".
"What does that mean?" Antoinette asks.
"That's the angle you see it by, or its size when taking its distance into account. If you're looking at a man from a distance, his apparent height may be 5 degrees, but if he's right in front of you, it's more like 90 degrees, or even more. If you drew a straight line from the top of his head to your eye, and then another one from your eye to his feet, then you have an angle, which would be smaller if the man is farther away. So the sun and the moon appear the same size, because the diameter of the sun is about 400 times that of the moon, but it is also 400 times farther away".
"So it looks exactly the same size?"
"Not exactly-exactly. If it were, then total eclipses would be over in a second. Sometimes the moon is a little bigger, and sometimes the sun is a little bigger, depending on the distance from earth. You know that the orbits are ellipses, right?"
Everybody nods (some, perhaps, because they don't want to appear the fool).
"So", Atajan goes on, "if the sun appears bigger, you'd get an 'annular eclipse', where the moon doesn't quite cover the sun, and you can see a ring of sun around the dark moon".
"Wow, is that what you saw in Turkey?" I ask.
"I know, an annular eclipse is supposed to be more special, but a total is more spectacular, and thankfully that's what we had both times."
"How long did it last?" Kiat wants to know.
"The first one was about 2 minutes, and last one about 3-and-a-half minutes, which was really cool. But it's not just the few minutes of totality that is interesting - it's the whole process leading up to it. You organize a group of people from all over the world, get a bus and drive for hours until you find the perfect spot, like on top of a hill with a clear view around. Then you spend an hour or so waiting for the total eclipse, while you keep on checking on the sun as the moon slowly creeps over it. Of course you know exactly at what time it will happen - it's in all the papers and the Internet - but it's still fun to watch the progress."
"Don't you need those special glasses to view the eclipse?"
"Yes, we have those eclipse glasses. You don't really see anything except the sun with those. You can't see the moon. So what you see with the glasses when the moon is covering the sun is a diminishing crescent. But actually when totality happens then you don't need the glasses and you take them off. But before totality, when you're checking on the progress, you need them. Or you can do that thing with the shadow".
"You know, you make a little hole in a piece of paper, and the light that shines through shows the shape of the sun on the ground. So you can see the sun, which looks like a crescent that is getting smaller and smaller, which is neat. You don't really need paper, though - we did it with our fingers - you fold them to make a tiny hole. Oh, and there was a tree there. That was really cool. You know how the shade of a tree can have hundreds of little dots of light, from the sunlight shining though its leaves? Well, this one had hundreds of little crescents of light. And we looked at it again after the totality, and all the crescents were all turned the other direction."
"Wow", is all Antoinette could mutter.
"But I want to hear about the totality", I persist.
"It happens kind of all of a sudden," Atajan continues his monologue. "Well, a few minutes before, you notice that the lighting changes - it looks like a kind of eerie artificial light. And it gets colder, too. And everybody is staring at the sun, through the glasses, and it's tense, electrifying. Some people have cameras on tripods, but we're mostly amateurs, just enjoying the experience. The excitement is building up as the moment approaches. We're all looking through our filters, and when it seems the crescent of the sun would get no thinner, it still does, until it is only a thin line on the left, and then a dot. And then it's like somebody throws the switch, and it's dark. Not totally dark. Over the hills, near the horizon, it's light, but as you look up, it gets darker, until you see the black circle of moon covering the sun. It's like the sun is radiating darkness, because the closer to the sun, the darker it is. And you can see stars, or rather planets: Venus and Mercury. Though I don't remember seeing Mercury the last time. Anyway, it's really exciting, and everybody is clapping and squealing. And you're looking around you, and back at the eclipse, and somebody points out that all the street-lights in the town are suddenly lit up automatically, and then you look back at the sun, and somebody is dancing in circles. It's kind of surrealistic, like we were in some science-fiction movie with a black sun. If little green men with pointed ears showed up, we wouldn't have been surprised. And then it's over, and it's light again, and collective sighs of disappointment, but we open bottles of champagne and take group photos, and it's a very happy moment." Atajan pauses.
"And when did you say is the next one again?" somebody asks.
But what sticks in my mind is the astonishing fact that the sun and the moon look the same size from earth. How's that for a coincidence. Or is it?
"The moon is just about full now," Atajan says, "so the best we can hope for is a lunar eclipse tonight. Solar eclipses only happen when the moon is between the earth and the sun, when there's a new moon."
That's already too much for me to take in - will have to see a drawing (if I ever get my hands on a pen and paper here ...)
When I said that I don't much care about the time of day, I was lying a little bit: The other day, I was sitting there on the sand in the afternoon, facing the sea (towards the east, I suppose) while the sun slowly sank behind the hills behind me. And then I saw the moon. It was the most beautiful moonrise ever: A full moon, appearing larger than ever as it rose from the sea, and with the coconut palms on the beach it painted a romantic picture such as those you might find at cheap art studios in Hong Kong, but you'd dismiss it as kitsch.
But this was real. I watched it rise slowly out of the sea, until it floated there in all its glory, reflecting in the sea and shining at the beach.
This was worth a replay. I needed to know the time, so I could come back the next day.
Walking briskly to the bar (even that seemed too fast for this utopia), I asked the guy there for the time, and made a mental note - I'd have to be here again tomorrow, same time, same place, and see it again.
And at 6 PM sharp the next day I was back on my dune, gazing east, and waiting. And waiting. It seemed a rather long time before the moon came up, but time didn't mean much at the moment. I didn't have a plane or bus to catch. Not that there were planes or busses on this little island, or even streets, for that matter. When the moon finally did come up, I asked the bartender again for the time. "Almost 7", was the answer. Huh. Must have mis-heard him the other day, or forgotten, or something. So this evening I'll settle this issue once and for all.
So here we are, waiting.
Probably been here a good half-an-hour already, maybe even an hour. Not that I was in a hurry, but I was still getting anxious. For I have a motive here, a hidden agenda: The rising time of the moon could fit right into my plan of a world without time-pieces. Why didn't I think of this earlier? The sun provides the approximate time of day (and 'approximate' is good enough - do we really need better resolution than 'mid-morning'?), but what do we do about the night, when the sun is not in the sky? This was gnawing at my mind for some time now, and here we have the solution right in front of us: The Moon.
Everybody knows that the sun shines in the day-time, while the moon is the in the sky at night. That's been indoctrinated into our consciousness since we were kids: All the picture books, all the stories... So we'll have a nice tidy theory: The sun rises about 6 am and sets around 6 pm, at which point the moon rises in the east, and traverses the sky all night, setting at 6 in the morning in the west. That way, looking at the sun or the moon, and their position in the sky, we can tell the approximate time.
All we have to do is verify that it indeed rises around 6 pm every evening... What's taking it so long? The sky is pitch black already. Maybe if I climb up that dune over there.
Isn't it true that you can see further if you are higher up? We had this argument once at the beach, ended up placing bets (well, virtual bets) on how long it takes the setting sun to disappear after touching the horizon, and how far away the horizon is, which somebody suggested depends on your height above sea level.
There, an area of the sky seems to be getting a bit brighter over towards the east. A little more ... there it is, the moon rises! Let's wait a little more, till the full moon comes into full view... huh, it doesn't seem quite full today. Ok, good enough, and the time is (Pico!) about a quarter to 8.
Time to think. We have a moon that doesn't stay the same shape night after night (which makes sense, I suppose, otherwise we'd never see the crescent-shaped moon from our picture-books), and it also seems to rise almost an hour later every night (which means it will eventually be in the sky only at daytime - decidedly not according to our childhood dogma).
Why do people think that the moon isn't in the sky in the daytime? I can think of 3 reasons:
But how does the shape and rising time of the moon help me in my quest? Will have to do a few more night's worth of observations. And perhaps our sun/moon clock will need some adjustments ...
Chapter 5: To Each Their Own
The Good Life
I walk along the concrete path past the Dining Hall. There's the cow shed coming up on the left (I can smell it before I can see it). "Yo!" somebody shouts from somewhere near the shed. I look around and see somebody in the middle of the sunny yard near the cow shed, wearing blue work clothes, shouting and waving his hands. I don't know anybody here, but there's nobody else around. "YO!" he shouts again, this time louder, so I walk nearer.
"Can you give me a hand here?" he asks.
"Sure," I say, "what are we doing?"
There's a large cow lying near his feet in the dirt. He points to it. "This one is ill or hurt, can't stand up. I want to drag it to the shade and then call the vet. I'm Dan".
"Nero". We shake hands. "How do we, like, drag a half-ton cow over there?"
"Here, grab its tail with me, and we swivel it until its back is facing where we want to go."
I grab the hairy tail with Dan, and we tug it, towards its legs, until the cow swivels on the ground, like Dan said. Not as tough as I thought. The cow raises its head, looks at us and lets out a feeble moo.
"Now," Dan continues, "we move around it, and lift its legs over its back and roll it over."
Rolling it over on its back is simple enough. I grab the front legs while Dan handles the rear, and we gently lift the 4 legs over the animal, until the cow is resting on its other side.
"Tell me again why we can't keep rolling it all the way there?" I ask him.
"Well, for one thing, we'd be lifting a ton." Then he corrects himself: "Close to half a ton, anyway. And it would be difficult to roll it over the legs, as they aren't nice and round like its back. We might even break its legs. This is the way to do it".
Now the cow's legs are facing the shaded area, where we want to pull it. "Ok, now we grab the tail again, swivel it, like we did before."
So we proceed to swivel and roll, swivel and roll, and in less than an hour the cow is resting in the shade. I feel a sense of accomplishment. "Never saw an upside-down cow before", I say, half to myself.
"You should come around here when we have their hoofs clipped," Dan says, "We put them in a special contraption that flips them over, and then clip-clip-clip."
I wonder about that cow: Did we help it? Were we mean to it? Did it survive? Maybe we shouldn't be too sentimental about them. It is a farm, after all. Farm animals are like plants they grow here for produce.
"Anyway, thanks," says Dan, "I'll be heading to my room now."
"You were going to the volunteers' area", he says, pointing the other way.
Before the Birds
Continuing on down the path, I pass what looks like kindergartens on the right, a bicycle repair-shop on the left and then what seems like a central laundry facility, because I see some people going in with bundles of clothes wrapped in a huge ball, and a little later going out with an armful of folded clothes, which they place carefully in a basket on the back of their bikes and peddle off.
In a little while I reach a group of old, rather dilapidated long, low buildings, 3 or 4 rooms in each. This is it. A red-haired guy is sitting outside of the second structure, bottle of beer in his hand. He looks up when I approach.
"You must be the new guy" he says. "I'm John, John-boy. Minnesota."
Not sure I'm at the right place. I am the new guy, after all. "This is it?"
"Yup, Shvedya. Maybe there used to be Swedes here. Before my time."
"And those houses?" I point at some well-cared houses with flower gardens just down the path.
"That's Norvegya. Those are members' ".
"So there are members and volunteers here?"
"Well, you also have your children, who are not members yet, and candidates, temps, and some paid workers, but not that many on this kibbutz. And about a dozen of us, from all sorts of places. I'm American, obviously. Been here a month now. You can room with me", and he points to the door in back of him.
Ah, a kibbutz. I've heard about these - collective farms in Israel with what sounds like a communist (or Hippie) philosophy, people working the earth together, and no money changes hands. A self-contained economic unit, where children are raised together, everybody eats together, and the profits from the agriculture are used to buy the food and other commodities and keep the thing going. In recent years, I've heard, many of them have started factories of sorts. And they often have volunteers lending a helping-hand.
"Where is everybody else?"
"At the pool. Let's go"
I am hot and sweaty from cow-rolling - a dip in the pool sounds good. "Give me a minute".
I step into the room, set my bag down, grope inside for my swimming gear, and in 5 minutes step back outside in sunglasses, Speedo briefs and flip-flops, with my towel flung over my shoulder and goggles in hand, pleased with myself that I'm well rehearsed for situations such as the one at hand. John is already outside, or rather still outside. Apparently his shorts doubles as swimming trunks, and his shirt serves as a towel. As for footwear, well, who needs footwear?
John follows my gaze and explains: "You get used to it. The paths get a little hot in the middle of the day, but now it's ok. You can also walk on the grass, of course."
I follow him to the pool, feeling a bit overdressed.
At the pool John introduces me to rest of the volunteers: Jesse, an airline pilot, Ivor, a professional diver from Scotland, Ricas from Holland, Carrie from the US, Rowena from South Africa, Rod from Australia, and the rest. Some appear to be from more than one country. Yvonne, for example, harks from England and Finland. Ivor, the Scot, lives in Holland, and so on. And Danielle is reputed to carry 3 different passports (from 3 different countries). Seems there are only some 10 of us volunteers now on this kibbutz. Some kibbutzes have more. Technically the plural for 'kibbutz' is 'kibbutzim', so I'm told. (Picking up some Hebrew here.)
The pool is pretty empty except for some kids shooting baskets into a home-made contraption in the shallow end. Some teenagers are crowded around the food area, which consists of an electric kettle, tea, coffee and cocoa, assorted biscuits, and a small refrigerator for milk. Some pre-school group seem to be having a birthday party on the lawn in the shade of the cypress trees at the far end, and across on the other side of the pool, in an easy-chair under a lone palm tree, sits a long-haired guy that I guess is the lifeguard. He is engrossed in his book, but seems to sense he is being scrutinized, for suddenly he looks up and our eyes meet.
Some kibbutz members are coming in now, with little kids and floats and grapes and whole watermelons. Suddenly I am startled as 5 or 6 of the teenagers run past me and leaped in the pool, doing 'the bomb', splashing cool water on me. Apparently this pool has no rules: No compulsory swimming-caps, no 'no-jumping', no 'no-eating', and no 'no-nothing'. I decide I like it. Time to let my hair down.
Appears to me that most kids on this kibbutz are like Olympic swimmers, doing that fancy flip-turn at the wall, and there's this one guy, his name is actually Guy, who swims the butterfly stroke like a fish, effortlessly doing laps - when he swims it makes the 25m pool look like a 5-meter bathtub. I should ask him to teach me that stroke. Still, I can do the breast stroke at a pretty good pace. I feel like doing a lap right now.
"I can help you with that scissor-kick, if you like".
I stop swimming and look up. It's Anat, Guy's younger sister.
"Nobody told you that you swim breast-stroke with a lopsided kick?"
The truth is, I've been vaguely aware of that fact for years now, and I wished it were not so, but it's probably hopeless to try and fix it now. Maybe it's because the first stroke I learned was side-stroke, where you are supposed to do the scissor-kick. I can swim side-stroke on both my right and left sides - don't I get any credit for that?
Anat doesn't wait for an answer. She walks over to a family with a little toddler, asks to borrow its life-saver inflatable ring, and then brings it over. "Pull it up to your knees, keep it there, and then try swimming your breast-stroke".
I comply, and although awkward at first, within 10 minutes my legs are kicking symmetrically with the ring on, and 10 minutes after that I'm doing it correctly with no ring. Problem solved. Thanks Anat. And thank you, toddler.
In the showers there's a kid standing under a fixed hair dryer. He has one arm raised, which I find curious at first, but then I understand why: Whenever he lowers his arm, it stops, so he raises his hand again almost touching the dryer, and the hot air resumes. When he's done, he moves away and I take my turn under the hair dryer, smiling to myself (I'll show him how it's done), but my height is just shy of the trigger, so I have to keep on standing on my tippy-toes to activate it. The boy is still standing there; I avoid his gaze (probably snickering now).
"Can I ask you something?" he says.
"Do you wash your mustache with soap when you wash your face, or with shampoo when you wash your hair?"
I didn't know mustaches need washing (must have missed that lesson). Well, for today the chlorine should do the trick...
Back at our quarters, John-Boy teaches me the ropes. "They'll probably put you in the factory or the avocado orchards", he says. "That's where I work. We're starting to pick next week, and we need all the hands we can get." But when we scan the work-list on the bulletin-board in the dining room before dinner, I find my name listed in the cow-shed. "Lucky bastard", John murmurs next to me, looking for his own name. Then he cheers up: "Oh, I'm with the gardeners tomorrow. I like that".
Entering the dining hall, we take our place at the end of one of the lines, and pretty soon I collect my tray, cutlery and glass, and follow Yvonne down the stainless-steel service carts, collecting vegetables, yogurt, cheese, and some kind of quiche. Then I approach the egg cart, where there are 2 buckets of boiled eggs, one with a towel hanging on the side. "That's the soft-boiled eggs", somebody quips, "with the towel". I choose an egg from the other bucket (hard-boiled). Then I realize I have no bread, so I go back to the first cart. All set now. Looking around me, I see none of the volunteers. From the last table in the smokers' section I see John waving at me. I'm not a smoker myself, but I head that way to join them, carrying my tray carefully.
"Where do you get tea?" I ask nobody in particular.
"Over there, by the water fountain", Yvonne points. "Could you get me coffee?"
"I'd like coffee, too," Jesse adds. "Only hot milk".
"Tea with milk", Rowena calls out.
"Coffee, black", Ivor growls.
John laughes. "Sucker".
But I take it lightly. "Not at all. Can I get you anything, John? And I didn't get Ricas' order". I get another tray, and soon have everybody's order.
Dan, whom I had met earlier, stops by the volunteer's table. "You're working with us tomorrow", he tells me, "in the cowshed. 4 am". My expression turns dark, something between shock and anguish. "The good news is that you get off by 12", he adds kindly, and goes back to his table.
And at 4 sharp I am there, but Dan is nowhere to be found. At 4:05 another guy shows up, who introduces himself as Dan's brother, Ron. "Dan's gone to the army for a month, reserve duty", he explains. "Come on; let's get you boots and rubber overalls."
We go out to the paddocks and round up the cows from 'paddock 1' into the milking shed. That involves a lot of shouting, shoving, and the occasional slap on a cow's backside, but eventually all the cows are in the shed, and we proceed to milk them, 16 at a time. Some cows have a ribbon tied on one of their feet. A white ribbon means that it just gave birth, and its milk goes to its calf. A green one means a sick cow, and the cow's milk is to be dumped to the sewer (but it still has to be milked). A red ribbon means a hurt cow that needed to be milked by hand. Ron shows I how that's done: You grab the upper part of the teat with one or two fingers against the thumb, and then pull downwards, closing in, allowing the milk to squirt out from the bottom. That's how they'd do it in the olden days. You'd go up to the cow with a little stool strapped to your rear end and a bucket in your hand, sit yourself down and place the bucket beneath its udders, and proceed to grab and yank, 2 teats at a time, until all 4 of them were deemed empty.