by O Bod
... and Nero finds the kibbutz more complex than he thought. Likewise the moon ...
Of All Places
Sometimes it's the Journey
...Chapter 5: To Each Their Own
The miracle of technology
These days it is all much simpler. The cows are led into separate stalls, and the milker (that would be me) attaches these steel test-tube-like thingies to the milkee (a cow), and the thingies practically jump into place via the magic of vacuum. Then the thingies do the milking, collecting the white fluid via tubes into a container. When the milking is done, the contraption drops off, and one can see how much milk each cow gave by looking at the tick-marks on the container. So after attaching the device, the milker, may move on to the next cow down the line, unless you are Ron or one of the other veteran dairy workers, who like to connect the slower-milking cows before the faster-milking ones, so they all finish at about the same time. "I'd start with number 526 over there", he would shout over to me, or "let me do 226 - she's a jumpy one".
I am impressed how Ron knows all the cows by their number.
"That's the third time this week that 127 gave less than 20 liters at the morning milking," he might say. "She may have to go."
"To the slaughtering house?" I ask.
"Either that or to export. In some other country this cow would be considered a star".
I smile as I attached the contraption to number 747. "I bet that's a fast one", I think to myself. It takes us nearly half-an-hour to finish milking the cows from paddock-1, at which time the sun is already coming up, big, bright and red. The sun seems to be largely complying with the clock, rising in the morning, and setting in the evening, though not quite the 6am/6pm time I hoped for in order to make it a viable alternative to a real clock. Still, I'd say it is within the acceptable range of error, which I can define myself, and right now I declare that if you can tell the approximate time of day, say, 5 times a day (e.g. morning, mid-morning, about noon, mid-afternoon, evening) then we are within range. But we're still busy milking, and by the time we are done with the other 3 paddocks it is full daylight and the other dairy workers straggle in.
Turns out there is plenty to do in the dairy besides the thrice-a-day milking. There are the calves and heifers to care for (A couple of the calves have to be bottle-fed), providing food and water for the cows, cleaning, and other maintenance around the milking shed and the paddocks. Lots of the work I have to do is in the muck, which is really a smelly mass of mud and cow-poop. It is often knee-deep, and once I lost one of my boots down there - it just came off with a pop when I tried lifting my foot, and I had to grope down there to retrieve it. I keep reminding myself that I am a volunteer here, and getting to work at 4 am and spending all day wallowing in cow extract just comes with the territory. It gives me some comfort from the fact that I am not alone, and that a veteran kibbutznik is working alongside me in the muck, and probably does so every day of his career. Of course, there are jobs that I do not get, like working on the computer in the small office in the milking shed (what did they do there?), driving a tractor (that looks neat), or inseminating the cows with a big syringe. Actually, I decided, I'd pass on that last one. But the day passes fairly quickly, and with the meal breaks my day is over before I know it.
Part of the crew
Somehow when working there I've become oblivious (or immune) to the smell, but as soon as the dairy crew marches into the dining room I can see by the reaction of all those around us that the smell is overpowering. I start to head toward the volunteer's table, but Ron stops me. "You're eating with us. They have a special table for us stinkos".
The serving carts emptied from people as we approached, and we went through collecting food without having to wait in line. It is pizza day, and I stack my tray with one slice of every kind (except for the one with the corn-topping. I'd never had that before, and was not about to start now). We all sit down at a table in the corner.
"Breakfast and lunch people normally eat with their work crews", Ron explains. He points to the non-smoking section. "There are 3 adjacent tables there. There's Avner with the factory crew, his wife-to-be on the next table with the medical-center crew, practically back-to-back with Avner, and his brother is on the next table with the avocado guys. At supper time they'll all be sitting together at the same table."
True to his word, Ron sends me off to retire after lunch. I peel my smelly clothes off outside and take a half-hour shower, but no amount of soap and shampoo can make me feel clean. Maybe it is my imagination, or maybe the muck is embedded in my nostrils. Chlorine should do it. I put on my bathing suit and walk over to the pool.
John is already there, and greets me with a lazy hello. "How'd it go today?" he inquires.
"Not too bad," I answer. "I learned my first Hebrew word: 'Yalla'. Not sure what it means, but it does move the cows".
"I don't think that's Hebrew".
At supper-time we stop at the main bulletin board again before going in to eat. I jostle with the other volunteers to see our work assignments.
"You must have done a good job there today", Rowena remarks, as she points to my name under 'Dairy'.
"It was ok", I answer. "Where are you?"
"Avocados. We start picking next week".
"So I hear. I'll probably have my fill of cow-shit by then".
Then I notice that not only volunteers, but also kibbutz members are reading notices on the board. Clive, from the UK, is standing nearby.
"Do members also get different assignments every day?" I ask, pointing to other notes and lists on the board. "No, usually they have their regular jobs. But there are other things: lost-and-found notes, movie announcements there, sign-ups for rides here. Look, somebody's going to Tel-Aviv at 5:30 tomorrow morning, and they have one place left. Do you want to go?"
"Can't. I'll be in the middle of milking. What's that list?"
"That's the weekly assignment for evening milking, and that's the one for dining-room evening work-shifts. That's on top of their regular jobs. Next week, when Avner and Nellie get married, they have pretty much everybody here assigned to help in the production, from setting up, serving or dismantling the dinner to participating in the show. There's also factory night-shifts, shuttle-driver, and so on. Next week there'll be a list for fruit-picking".
"You seem to know a lot. How long have you been here?"
"They'll make you a member yet."
"They already have."
The Shavuot holiday occurs at the end of spring, before the long, hot, rainless summer sets in, when the farmers are harvesting wheat and other crops. It is the festival of harvest, and also has religious/biblical significance, though that's not apparent on this kibbutz. Still, as the kibbutz was founded on agriculture, it is a major holiday, and they set up a stage where each of the various branches (wheat, avocado, etc.) displays their crops. The chicken-coops brought a carton of eggs, and the dairy a metal bucket of milk, and also had a newborn calf in tow. There was also folk-dancing, singing, and food (lot of different kinds of cheeses). The bleachers are made from bundles of hay, on which I'm sitting next to Avner.
"So, is it always on the same date in at the end of the spring?" I ask.
"It's at the end of spring, but it uses the Hebrew calendar, you know, based on the moon. All Jewish holidays are based on that calendar."
"But the moon month is shorter than a month on the Gregorian calendar, isn't it?" I ask, remembering the term 'Blue Moon', where a new moon can occur twice in the same calendar month. "So you have to have a lot of leap-days to catch up, to keep your holidays in the right season."
"Right," Avner agrees, "Hebrew months are 29 or 30 days long, but then we have a 'leap month' every 3 or 4 years, so we kind of stay in sync."
Shavuot also marks the beginning of the wedding season on the kibbutz (somebody said that you're not supposed to get married between Passover and Shavuot, but on the kibbutz, this one, anyway, I think it has more to do with tradition, or maybe just the weather ...). Avner and Nellie were set to get married a week after Shavuot, and two days before the wedding, the chief of the garden crew told the fellow on irrigation duty to give the lawn extra watering in the evening and then make sure to turn off the automatic sprinklers for the next 2 days. Then the next day they set up a stage on the 'big lawn' across from the dining hall and in the evening had a general rehearsal.
And today, the wedding day, at noon all kind of people began to show up on the kibbutz. Couples and their children are wandering on the paved paths all around the kibbutz, visiting the little playground, the children's houses, and the cows. They are easy to spot, the visitors, not only because of their attire and their touristy behavior, but also because they walk around in family format, something kibbutzniks only do in the evening when they walk together to the dining hall for supper.
After lunch things got busy, when some 30 members began working quickly on the big lawn, setting up tables and chairs and everything for the entire kibbutz and the visitors. It is surprising that the wedding ceremony itself seems orthodox, with a black-clad-bearded rabbi and all, while everything else is so secular here. Except for the appearance of the bride, who was brought in an elaborately decorated chair borne on a forklift. After the groom crunched the glass and the marriage ceremony was over, the second crew got into motion, and food was brought to the tables: First drinks and small salads and then the main course, which was endless platters of chicken and schnitzel and roast beef and potatoes and rice.
Then the show began, with children singing and old-timers dancing and a comedy act, but it seems too elaborate and well-rehearsed for a one-time affair and that they probably do these acts for every wedding. Up until then there was little to hint that Avner and Nellie were the cause of all this fanfare, and the kibbutz had just picked one warm summer evening to have a grand party, but now the music died down and a slide-show began on a big screen, alternately showing Avner growing up on the kibbutz and Nellie as a little girl with her family in France. It ended with a picture of them together on the big lawn, and then they were called up to the stage, where another couple, the last to wed on the kibbutz, presented them with a wreath that they pass on from one couple to the next.
Finally coffee and cake were served, and people got back to their conversations, and the dismantling crew (including us volunteers) assembled in the corner, and when it was all over I set out to find Avner.
All in a Row
I find him near the stables, gazing at the almost-full-moon just over the western horizon, with his fingers around his watch. "Hard to accept the transition?" I ask.
Avner presses on his stop-watch, and then turns to me. "What transition?"
"The marriage and all. You're still in the denial stage, I guess."
"Oh, that. Not at all. The wedding doesn't change much. It's a kibbutz festival that they like to do several times each summer, but for us, well, it's ok. Could have done without it."
"So what're you doing out here?"
"Testing a theory of mine."
Avner looks up to where the moon was, but now there is just a glow over the horizon. "Damn! Missed it again!" and he stops his watch.
"I read a while ago that the apparent diameter of the moon is about half-a-degree. And the sun, too, which is why they eclipse so perfectly."
"I heard the same".
"Anyway, that got me thinking. There are 360 degrees in a circle, right, so if we stack up many suns, one on top of the other, it will take 720 of them to circle the earth, as each takes up half a degree. Are you following?"
"Ok, so we have a ring of suns around the earth. Picture that they have big numbers on them, '1' on the first sun which is on top of the western horizon, then '2' on top of that, and all the way around to '720'. Ok? Now, here's a question that I've often wondered about: How long does it take the sun to disappear below the horizon once the bottom of it touches?"
"Easy. It takes one day, or 24 hours, for the earth to complete a full turn, right? So if sun number 1 is now on top of the western horizon, then it will take 24 hours to traverse all 720 suns until number 1 appears there again. So how long does it take to traverse each sun, I mean for each to sink below the horizon? 720 suns in 24 hours divides exactly into 30 suns per hour, which can be further reduced to 1 sun every 2 minutes. So it should take exactly 2 minutes for the sun to sink below the horizon. QED."
"That short? I'd have guessed more, maybe 10 minutes. Anyway, I'm impressed. Spooky how it all divides so equally".
"Yes, except that I'm afraid it takes more than 2 minutes."
"Oh. Observation doesn't back up theory? I hate when that happens. Any ideas?"
"Well, I started thinking that maybe optical illusion plays a part here. You know how the sun looks fat when it hits the horizon? Maybe what I'm seeing isn't the sun at all, but its reflection in the sky or the atmosphere or something. So the other day I decided to test my theory on the moon, instead - it should be the same, but with less glare."
"Hmmm. That might do it, but can I offer another explanation?"
"Maybe it has to do with the angle to the horizon when it sets. If it's supposed to be exactly 2 minutes when it is exactly perpendicular to the horizon, then if it sets at an angle then it's longer, like the hypotenuse of a triangle."
"Or maybe, when the sun or moon are just above the horizon, then they are bigger, so it takes longer to set".
That doesn't sound right, but I don't want to contradict him. "I thought that was just an illusion", I say, and then add "But still, that's an interesting observation. I'm also following the moon these days."
"A few days ago there was a beautiful full moon", says he.
"So it's getting smaller now?" I ask, getting interested.
"Definitely. You can see it's less than full now. Also, I happen to know that the day of the month, according to the Hebrew calendar, is past the mid-point."
"How does that help?"
"Hebrew months begin with a new moon, the moon increases until it's a full moon around the 15th of the month, and then decreases to nothingness by the end of the month, at which point it starts again. Then there's also that trick they taught us in scouts about that tells you if the moon is getting bigger or smaller."
"How does that work?" I ask.
"If you, like, add a little line to the top of the moon, then the moon looks like the Hebrew letter Gimmel or Zayin, depending if the round part of the moon is on the left (that's a Gimmel) or the right (Zayin). If it looks like a Gimmel, then we say 'Gomer', which mean finishing, or diminishing. If it's a Zayin then it is 'Zoreach', which means rising, increasing in size."
"Seems like a handy language to know", is all I can think of saying.
Alright, things are beginning to come together. The moon sets later every day, and it changes shape, too, in a predictable manner. Maybe there's a formula here. I'll need to work it out. Some other day.
"Let's head back", I say, "Your wife is probably wondering where you are."
Avner suddenly snaps back to the present, looks at me, nods, and we both head back. When we get to the residential area we part ways, I to the volunteer quarters and Avner back to Nellie, his bride.
Time passes quickly here, days and weeks. Despite the early risings and the hard work, the volunteers always seem to have strength to party into the night. Sitting on the veranda on their longhouse in 'Shvedya', we eat watermelon and tell stories of our travels. There's a guitar that we pass around, an old thing with bolts and screws and scotch-tape holding it together. '...resurrected from beyond repair ...' is scribbled on the front, yet the sound that comes out of it is not too shabby, to my ears, anyway. And all the volunteers seem to know how to sing and play the thing. Wait a minute - isn't that the same song they are all playing, each in their turn. Yes it is. Me and Bobby McGee.
'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose ...'
After the fourth variation, I excuse myself and head out to explore the kibbutz by night.
The kibbutz is a network of narrow cement paths between houses and neighborhoods. The neighborhoods have funny names, all with some historical explanation. The one adjacent to 'Shvedya' is 'Norvegya' (obviously), and 'Vatican' was so named not because of the Pope's residence but because 'vatik' meant 'old-timer' in Hebrew. Then there is 'Lego', built of blocks, and 'Ein-Lool', which means 'no chicken-coop', because it was built on the location of a long-ago demolished chicken-coop. But wherever I go, I can smell the dairy. Or is the smell still embedded in my nostrils? Old-timers here say they don't notice the smell anymore, but how can you not? Somebody is practicing piano in one of the children's houses; a frog hops out of my way on the path in front of me, and a barn owl swoops over my head, its white feathers contrasting sharply against the dark sky. Do owls eat frogs?
My eyes follow its path of flight as it rises high and disappears into a cypress tree. Wispy clouds are moving lazily against the moon. With a little imagination I can imagine that it is the moon that is moving behind the stationary clouds, but deep down inside I know that the reverse is true. Somewhere deeper inside I know that they are really moving against each other, for nothing is absolute in the universe, and everything is moving in relation to everything else. And even deeper down, on a subconscious level, something inside me tells me that what I see moving against something else is also dependent on the observer, who is also in motion, of course, as is everything else. And the observer in question, yours truly, is moving in a clockwise direction around the residential area of the kibbutz, past the closed gate of the pool, the kindergartens, the dining hall, the laundry, and behind dining hall, where I see a large crate of watermelons. I continue on back to the volunteer houses, where I find them still outside with the guitar, though thankfully they got over 'Bobby' and now Clive is doing his rendition of 'Dust in the Wind'.
It is midnight now, and the full moon is as high as it gets, at its zenith. Zenith meaning at the moon's highest position tonight, but not directly over me, as I am now north of the Tropic of Cancer, the equatorial zone border, where the sun and the moon never dare trespass. So the moon is behaving consistently, after all. When it's full, it rises around 6 pm, makes its way across the sky, reaching its halfway mark around midnight, and then continues its journey westward until it sets there around 6 am. Pretty neat. And it's also pretty neat how they use a lunar calendar here, so they always know when there's a new moon, full moon, and everything in between (though the leap months could be confusing).
Dust in the Wind
Sunday we are all in the avocado groves, all but Ivor, who has a steady assignment in the carpentry shop. Uri, a local high school kid on summer vacation, is driving the tractor, pulling lots of little trailers after it, each with a colored plastic container on top. Each container is maybe a meter high, and has a square base measuring about 2 meters in each dimension. There are maybe a dozen of these trailers, and it reminds me of those little kiddie-trains you see at amusement parks. Uri drives his multi-colored train between 2 rows of avocado trees, while the pickers empty their buckets into the containers. When he reaches the end of a row, he makes a wide circle to account for all his trailers, and then enters the next row heading back. He tosses empty buckets under the trees, and then he has to wait for the pickers to fill them up.
Although Uri is only 17, that doesn't stop him from taking command in his home turf: "Today we're picking fuerta and hass avocados. Hass are the small, bumpy kind. High quality. Those we can just pull of the trees, like this", and he pulls one off cleanly, and places it swiftly but carefully in a bucket. "Note that I don't throw it in the bucket, so I don't damage the fruit. For the fuerta ones we need clippers, otherwise they dry out." From the facing row he grabs a fruit in one hand and neatly clips it off with the other hand, leaving a sort stump. "Don't leave the stump too long, or it may damage other fruits. This one is a little soft, too ripe to send to market. Put the ripe ones in a separate bucket - those are going to the dining room here. Each person gets a tree, and we pick the whole tree clean. If there is like one fruit too high or far to get, just leave it - it is not economical to spend half-an-hour to get one fruit. Or call me - I'm good at climbing trees. We don't empty out the buckets into the containers until Zvika comes around and writes down the trees' stats. Any questions?"
People are looking at him as if he were a sergeant military commander who is not to be questioned. But I'm not afraid.
"Why do you mix different kinds of trees in the same plot? Wouldn't it make more sense to have one plot fuerta and another has?" I ask.
"Good question. We do 4 rows of one kind, and then 4 rows of the other. That's for pollination. The trees have both male and female parts, but they're not open at the same time. One kind of tree has its male parts open in the morning, and its female parts in the afternoon. And with the other kind it's the other way around, so a tree can't pollinate itself. This way we get the pollen of the hass to pollinate the fuerta, and vice-versa."
I can't help but smile: Nature's answer to incest.
Uri assigns me a tree. "This is a nice one. Not too high, spread out, easy to climb, lots of fruit. I bet you can fill 30 buckets here".
Uri leaves and I'm off to work. It feels good to be working on a common cause, with members and volunteers as equals, young and old working together, and the touch of the fruit in my hand is very satisfying. I grab and clip, grab and clip, and with each bucketful my sense of accomplishment grows. I pause for a minute to count them. 30 buckets even, plus almost another bucketful of soft ones for the dining-hall. I pick another one. This one is really soft. Uri appears out of nowhere, and sees the avocado that I am holding. "Ripe one, eh?"
He takes out a pocket-knife and slices it quickly into quarters. He offers one to me. I accept it and take a small bite. It tastes, I decide, well, next to nothing. Maybe on toast, with plenty of salt. Rowena ducks in from the next tree and also helps herself to a quarter. Uri is still holding the other open half in his hand. The coloring looks nice, with the dark-green skin on the outside, and then the edible part: light green near the skin that gradually turns to yellow as it approaches the center.
"And there is your seed", Rowena concludes my thoughts, as she points to the huge pit in the middle.
In the evening there are avocados in the dining-hall, a small mountain of them on a table near the trays. I am sitting with the volunteers, having made a point of sitting facing the food stalls to see if people are eating the fruit, my fruit. And they are. Right at the next table a toddler is nibbling on a piece as her mother tries to teach her the word for the new food.
"A-vo-ca-do", the mother pronounces it slowly.
"A-bo-ca-lo", the little one answers.
For the next 3 weeks I work in the Avocado groves, loving every minute. Besides Uri, there are other regulars in the avocado crew: Elazar, Mito, Oscar, and their fearless leader Zvika.
"What do you do when the picking season is over?" I wonder out loud.
"Oh, there's always work here. After the picking is done we prune the trees to keep them from growing very high. We white-wash the upper parts of the trees to protect them from too much sun. Then there's spraying and weeding, and checking the drippers, and irrigation work and computer work. Kind of like your cows in the dairy".
"Well, we nurse the tree from seedling-hood, providing it with water and nutrients like a calf. Then we bring in bee-hives to help the plants reproduce. They help the cows reproduce, too, don't they? We care for the trees and the whole operation, just as they do with the cows and the dairy, and in return they provide fruit (or in the case of the cows - milk). You might say it's a win-win situation. We track each individual's produce, and after several years, when the production goes down, they meet the axe, and a new one takes its place."
Just like that. These guys have no sentiments to the cows. Or the plants...
Work, work, work
I find I am entering some sort of routine, for the time being, anyway. Mornings I am clambering around the trees, picking avocado fruit in the orchards. I guess I've proved myself a diligent worker, as I've been given greater responsibility: They gave me the task of being in charge of the radio, allowing me to switch frequencies at whim to any of the stations we can pick up here (of which there are about two). The afternoons are mostly spent at the pool, or rather at the pool side, hanging out on the grass and sometimes in the water, too. Then we freshen up and get dressed in clean clothes and go to the dining hall to eat, with the obligatory stop at the bulletin-board, even though these days almost all of us are assigned to avocado-picking. One evening I am standing there, looking at postcards from Spain that some member sent the kibbutz from his holiday, when a familiar voice greets me. It is Dan, back from 4 weeks in the army.
"Leave you for a few weeks, and you abandon ship!" he chides.
I look at him defensively.
"Just kidding. I know it's avocado-picking season".
We get our trays and stand in line for supper. Dan picks 3 ripe avocados from the pile and puts them on his tray.
"Looks like a good crop this year, if this is what they dump in the dining-hall".
I see my volunteer friends in the smoking-section, but follow Dan to the non-smoking section, where we get a table for two.
"So, you've been gone for a month? Don't they give you, what's it called, 'furlough' in the middle?"
"Well, I was kind of grounded." "Why?"
"Caught me on my guard shift in my underwear."
"Wow. Did they put you on trial, in the brig and all that?"
"Well, we're reservists, so they're not that strict. They took me to this regular army base, and went through the motion of putting me in the can. You know: Empty out your pockets, take off your belt and shoelaces, etc. Then they put me in this small room with a bed, like a jail, and I was tired anyway so I went straight to sleep. After a nice 2-hour nap they decided I should work, so they said I should cut weeds around the base, and they gave me this huge scythe, the kind like the Grim Reaper with 2 handles. It looks easy, but it took me about an hour to get the hang of it, quite a challenge - you have to swing and pull at the same time. But once you get going, you really get going, and you can really do some damage to those weeds. The sergeant came around to see how I was suffering, and I made a comment how it was silly that my belt and shoelaces were removed so I couldn't hurt myself, but then I was given this scythe with a meter-long blade. So he took away the scythe and gave me an old uzi, which was cool, and said I should patrol the base with that. So there I am, no belt or shoelaces lest I hurt myself, but I'm given a gun. I couldn't resist commenting how silly that was, so they took away my uzi, gave me back my stuff and sent me back to the reservists' camp. And that was it, except that they canceled my leave."
"So you stayed there a whole month?"
"Yeah, but it's not too bad. It's a good group, and we meet every year, so we've known each other for a long time. We do lots of reminiscing about previous reserve stints, and there's always funny situations and stuff so that next time we can reminisce about this time."
"Wow - so you go away for a month every year?"
"More or less. Being away from your home and family sucks, but you get used to it."
"And what do you do there for a month? If I may ask, that is."
"Sure. Mostly patrols along the border and guard duty at the base and watch towers. It gets a little tedious, so I taught myself to identify birds we pass along the way, and at night there are the stars, of course. You see millions of stars there, as there are hardly any lights around. Well, it looks like millions, but I read somewhere that one can see at most only a few thousand stars in the sky."
Less is More
"So you're a bird-watcher and star-gazer."
"Well, an amateur one, I'd say, on both counts. The funny thing with stars is that the more stars you see, the harder it is to identify the familiar ones."
"Why is that?"
"The constellations, like the Big Dipper, which everybody knows, consist of stars up to magnitude 2 or 3. If you only want to see that and the other bright stars, it's best to have poor visibility, so the only stars you see are magnitudes 2 and below. In the middle of ..."
"Magnitude?" I interrupt.
"Okay. Ahem, astronomy lecture." Dan clears his throat. "Magnitude is the apparent brightness of stars. Magnitude 0 is very bright, magnitude 1 less so. In the middle of the desert on a clear night, as it was when I was on watch, one could see up to magnitude 6, which is very faint stars, which is why you see so many of them that it's hard to make out the famous ones. With a telescope, of course, you can see even fainter ones."
"Can you see all the planets?"
"Venus is easy to see, of course. It's like magnitude minus 4 these days, very bright, early in the morning. One time I tracked it almost until noon time. I wanted to track it until it set in the afternoon, but I was called away and couldn't find it afterwards. You can see Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, too, but you have to know where to look. Once I saw Mercury, too. The others are too faint - you need a telescope."
"Do you have one?"
"Sounded like you were really into it, but now it sounds like you're not."
"Well, star-gazing belongs to my other life, in reserve-duty, along with bird-watching, book-reading, backgammon, chess, and playing the recorder. Back home I have another life: Family, work, partying, and so on."
"I can play the recorder a little".
"One time I played it at night from my watch tower, and the Egyptian soldiers from their watch tower across the way clapped after each piece."
I thought about the image of Dan doing guard duty, in his underwear, on a tall tower on the border, playing recorder while the soldiers on the other side listen and clap. (Just a few years ago the same soldiers and Dan would be shooting at each other.) And above them, oblivious to the border and the patrols and the soldiers that straddled either side, the sky above glowed with millions (make that thousands) of stars, all around and as far as the eye can see.
"So it's easier to see the Big Dipper in the city than out in the desert?"
"Ever hear of light pollution? It's worse than smoke pollution for astronomers. Street lights, city-glow, back-light from the haze and clouds. The more light there is around the ground, the less you can see in the sky. Which is good if you're looking for the bright stars and constellations, as you can't very well see anything else. It's like a crowd of people - it's easier to see an individual if there are less people around."
It's Saturday evening, and I'm standing outside the dining hall, enjoying the warm breeze, when I notice members approaching the dining hall from all directions. I see Elazar, and ask him what's going on.
"Members' assembly", he says. "Sorry, no volunteers".
"What do you talk about there?"
"Today there are 2 candidates up for membership, so we vote on that. There's a member, a real scholar, who wants to go abroad to a conference, but he's been abroad already once this year on the same excuse, so we are going to debate if he can go again. And then there's the catacomb business", and he winces.
"You know my neighborhood, Lego? Used to be one-story houses, with only a bedroom, a living room, and a kitchenette. We have 4 kids, mind you, but as the kids used to sleep in their children's houses, it was ok. Then they voted that the kids sleep at home, and they began expanding all the houses in all the neighborhoods. Lego is like row-houses, and they had nowhere to expand but up, so they built a second floor, so now we have these 2-story town-houses. Then somebody, you don't want to know his name but he's very small-minded, he took some measurements and announced that the area of the houses in Lego is a few square-meters more than houses in the rest of the kibbutz, so they poured some concrete on the floor, that's what we call 'catacombs', so now we have these big rectangular blocks in our houses. I suppose we could put a mattress on it and call it a couch, but I'm angry at the principle of it."
"I guess they're being petty", I offer in support.
Suddenly Elazar is defensive. "No, they're right. These are our rules, we voted on them, and we should abide by them. I'm just angry because it's affecting me personally. Maybe it's time we change some rules. Or maybe I don't really fit in here."
"By the way, I think catacombs means something else. Unless you mean it's a deep dark cavernous secret issue."
"I think that the assumption that we are all equal, and all have equal desires, may be wrong. Our motto is 'give what you can, take what you need'. But that itself indicates that we are not equal, so why pretend we are? We encourage individual thinking, ideas, resourcefulness and leadership. So why not different needs and aspirations?"
I think that Elazar hit on a point that may have eluded the earliest communist thinkers, beginning with Karl Marx. We are each different. We each have our own private lives, family, friends, interests, hobbies, political views, religious feelings. Not to mention being physically different. Maybe this is what they should vote on at the members' assembly.
Anyone who isn't different, raise his hand.
We all think alike.
We are all the same.
Chapter 6: Time Travel
Also Known As
The lead diver heads deeper, and we follow. Every so often I pause to equalize my ears, or empty my mask, or check my air - he told us to tell him if any of us goes below 100, so we should start our ascent. Well, not really tell him, more like sign him. Before the dive he went over all the signs we should use and be familiar with. They even have signs here for eels (a sine wave), crabs (scissor fingers), lion fish, and other creatures. And we did see all of those, and more, including: Lobsters, flounders, pipe-fish, frog-fish, sea-cucumbers, sponges, fern-corals, brain-corals, chocolate-dipped fish (okay, I'm not sure if that's the proper name of this one, but we seem to be at loss of words to describe what we see underwater, in this alien world, so instead we borrow terms from our land-lubber vocabulary ...)
Scuba-diving is an amazing experience in itself, even in a swimming pool. There are so many aspects here, all new to our experiences: surviving under water for long periods of time, swimming with the fish, the amazing feeling of weightlessness, and the ability to move in 3D just blows your mind. You can move right, left, forwards and (kind of) backwards, but if you see something interesting above you or below you, you just move that way vertically - a whole new dimension!
I mean, there are other animals that can move through the air or water, but for us humans, moving around is strictly 2D, but look at me now! I can move up and down at whim. I don't even have to do anything special; I see a pretty shell on the seafloor, I just sink over to it. Where did my dive-buddy go? Oh, there she is, right above me, I should float up to her. I still need to use the inflatable vest to regulate my weight, but more advanced divers don't even need to do that: They just subconsciously fill and empty their lungs to move up and down.
And the feeling of weightlessness (I'm like an astronaut, can do flips and back flips without falling down) - this is so un-human-like, so alien to our senses. Surreal, that's the word that best describes it. But maybe it's fitting, as this place that is surreal to begin with.
For I am in the place that time forgot, a.k.a. the land frozen in time, a.k.a. Cuba. Little has changed here in the last 50 years, since JFK declared Cuba the equivalent of 'persona non-grata', ex-communicated from the 'friendship of nations'. This is most apparent, to us tourists anyway, in the vintage American cars we see everywhere, but it goes deeper than that, to their standard of living, kitchen appliances, supermarkets, and so on. At home we'd call it poverty. But here, well, that's how it is here, as it must have been everywhere else in the 50's ...
Ruthy is my dive buddy. She harks from France. "My flight took me 10 hours to get here", she says, "but it's less than 9 hours on the return trip. Why do you think that is?" she asks.
"Trade winds, or Jet Stream, or something like that", I venture, recalling the constant west-to-east winds near the equator, both north and south.
Ruthy disagrees. "I think it's because the earth is turning when the plane is in the air, so it takes longer to cross the Atlantic going west than it is going east", she says.
I think about that for a bit.
"I beg to differ, on 3 accounts", says I. "First, the earth is turning from the west to the east, but I don't think that matters".
"The earth is turning from the west to the east?" she asks.
I don't say anything, waiting for her to figure it out by herself. Then she mumbles, half to herself: "The sun seems to move from the east to the west, but really ... okay, you're right. What are the other 2 reasons?"
"Okay, I don't think we, or an airplane for that matter, feel the earth spinning. One reason is that the air moves along with the earth. If that weren't so, then we'd always have winds of some 1500 kilometers-per-hour blowing, which we don't. Also, 3rd reason, have you ever jumped off a moving train? I did. The train was pulling into the station, and I opened the door, and I waited until it almost came to a full stop, looked like walking speed, so I hopped out, my feet hit the pavement, but the rest of me kept moving - fell smack on my face. True story. So a plane taking off takes with it the speed of the earth moving, so it doesn't need to be accounted for. If you throw a ball straight up in the air, you should expect it to fall down to the same place, not somewhere else because of the earth spinning. Maybe if you go high enough, out of the atmosphere, then it has an effect, but planes don't go so high. However, there probably is some effect due to the earth's spin, because you also went from north to south to get here. The Coriolis effect, you know ..."
Ruthy listens, but isn't buying it. "I have another theory then. Did you ever hear of airways, or Atlantic Tracks, or air-corridors? Maybe East-bound and west-bound planes don't fly on the same air-corridors, so they wouldn't crash. Maybe the west-bound one is longer. That must be it. I never heard of The Trade-winds".
"I thought that you always cross the Atlantic going west during the day, and going east during the night, that's why they never meet. Anyway, as for the The Tradewinds - wasn't that a pop band in the 60's? From Providence, Rhode Island, if I remember correctly. Of all places. We had their record at home, along with Paul Evans, Pete Seeger, and The Seekers. Would fit right in here, with these old cars and everything. I wonder if Cubans listen to 60s music, too. They probably have their own songs."
"Guantanamera is a Cuban song, isn't it?"
The dive at Guajimico was amazing, even though my new 10-meter-depth camera filled with water and gave up after barely 1-meter (hope the warranty holds ...).
Another minor mishap had to do with my big backpack that contained clothes for the week and little souvenirs from home for the locals (you take some, you give some). I had to run to make the connecting flight to Havana, and when I did I settled happily in my seat, buckled my seatbelt, smiled smugly (that 'I beat the system' feeling). My backpack was not so fortunate. Lacking legs to run, it missed the 2nd leg of the journey, which I discovered while waiting for my bag at the baggage conveyer in Havana. After the rest of the passengers collected theirs and left, and the carousel was turned off, I went over to the service window. A quick check on the computer confirmed it: "Your mochila should be here on tomorrow's flight, give us your hotel address and we'll have it delivered." I was pretty impressed by their technology and efficiency - not at all what I was made to believe about Cuba.
That changed when the bag was not delivered the next day, nor did they answer the phone for the following 2 days, at which point I decided I'll proceed with my planned trip to Viles (pronounced Viniyales), known for its fine tobacco fields and picturesque valley, about 2 hours west of Havana. The bus was fully booked, so I joined a taxi heading there (same price) along with a couple from Spain (lucky them, they speak the local language). We were fortunate to get one of those old cars, a '53 Chevy, but after an hour of chugging along I began to regret it. I asked the person sitting next to the driver to turn on the AC, and at first she started looking for it and then turned to me realizing that I was pulling her leg. The old clock didn't work, either, nor the speedometer, door handles, and the passenger's windshield-wiper (not essential...). The driver's single windshield-wiper kind of worked, scraping along, barely pushing away the water, making me drowsy, slapping time - hey, we don't need to invoke Bobby McGee again - they have their own fine Cuban music. Despite the age of our jalopy, we managed to pass some other vehicles on the highway, but mostly old motorcycles with sidecars or horses with buggies. Passing near a school, I saw that some of the horse-drawn wagons serve as school-buses, hauling 8 or 10 students in back. Towards our destination we got off the highway and entered farm country, and we saw farm houses, fields and animals. A large bull was sitting under a tree, and I grabbed my camera and squirmed around to shoot it. A real-to-life Ferdinand, sitting under his cork tree, and now I had proof.
Away from the city lights, this was a good opportunity for night sky-watching, but I didn't expect to see anything new. I mean, it is the same sun, moon and stars, after all. And the moon is what interests me now, but I think there's not much left to learn there. For example, I know by heart the explanation why the moon looks so big when it is near the horizon, having read and reread the explanation dozens of times. That said, I'm not sure I understand it yet. It is not because it is next to houses or trees, that part I understood. The theory goes something like this: Humans don't perceive the sky as round, but rather like a shallow canopy over the earth, like a pot cover. So we think that an object on the horizon is much further away than one straight above us in the sky. So if an object (the moon, as the case may be) appears the same size, be it straight above or just over the horizon, then that which is over the horizon must be far bigger (because we perceive it as further away).
At Viles I stayed at a farmhouse, with a real cowboy, horse, chaps and all. There I met Richard and his side-kick Nico, from Port Arthur, Texas (wasn't Janis Joplin from there? Maybe Bobby McGee is fitting here, after all ...). Richard is a photographer making a documentary on farming in Cuba. All his work is in stills, and black-and-white at that. (Can one really capture the essence of Cuba this way? You're missing the vivid colors of the pastel-colored houses and bright-colored vintage cars. And the sound and movement of their music. And the smell of their cigars, and the taste of their rum-and-coke. Maybe for farming it's okay ...)
Cowboy's 29-year-old son, Ranier (a name I've only heard in connection with Monaco), took us all on horses for a 4-hour ride, through fields of corn, turnips, sugar-cane, coffee plants, and endless tobacco fields. We stopped at a hut in the middle and heard an explanation how each plant has 4 layers of leaves, each with a different quality, and when they roll the cigars they make sure to mix and match the different type of leaves. He said the Viles valley has the finest tobacco in the land (and hence in the world...). We reached a cave at the end, complete with stalagmites and stalactites, and a clear-water pool.
Horses are a great way to travel: Fast, on-and-off road, and environment friendly (they don't pollute or rip up your dirt or sand dunes). Problem is, it was drizzling most of the day and muddy, and by the time we got back my shoes and socks were caked in mud, as was the bottom of my pants. Recall that I had nothing to change into, having been separated from my mochila, but no problem: I hosed down my shoes and hung them out to dry, picked up a pair of flip-flops for 60 Cuban Pesos (about $2.50 US), and rolled up the pants (there're like Bermuda shorts now). As for the socks: After 3 days they began to smell anyway, and after filling with mud I unceremoniously declared them a 'total-loss' and dumped them. Flip-flops should do for the remainder (and the shoes should dry, too). The farmers loaned us some bikes in the afternoon and we pedaled over to some well-placed vantage lookouts of the famous valley. Much as everything looks authentic there now, the place is now squarely on the tourist route, and every little farmhouse, shack and dwelling is now renting rooms for tourists.
Quaint and Happy
My first stop in Cuba was Havana, where I got my first impressions of Cuba, that include: Music, happy people, pastel-colored houses, and lots of 50's American cars all painted in bright colors (red, green, blue). These cars are the pride of these proud people, and sometimes you see the car model and year painted on the back window '48 Dodge'. There are also your old Fords, Pontiacs, Chevy's, Oldmobiles, fish-tailed Chryslers and DeSotos. But much of this is surface-deep, a fade. - The pastel-colored buildings are all in a dire state of disrepair, once you peek inside: Cracking walls, missing tiles, wires sticking out of the walls, broken plumbing ... and the beautiful old vintage cars are no better: Missing door and window-handles, non-working clocks and speedometers, exhausts spewing out black smoke and noise, and if you are (un)fortunate enough to catch a ride in one, you have the constant smell of oil and unburned gasoline. Early in the morning you often see people walking home from the local bakery with big loaves of white bread. It occurs to me that I have yet to see dark/whole/seed bread here in Cuba. Maybe people here have yet to recognize the benefits of healthy bread. Is it their poverty, or just ignorance, for in the fifties we were not that health-conscious, and we all thought that white 'Wonder-Bread' was the latest and greatest (or am I confusing it with 'Wonder-Bra'?). Anyway, nobody was very health-conscious 50-60 years ago. That also jives with the observation that practically everybody seems to smoke here (including the old cars ...)
I've been here almost a week now, and I have to keep reminding myself that the year is 2016. I did find wi-fi in one of the fancy hotels I peeked into, but other than that it appears Internet is rare here, and cell phones even rarer. I don't think they even have cable TV. I did see a small TV here and there at houses I've stayed at, but the reception is poor (could it be they get broadcasts all the way from Florida?).
Not that that's a bad thing - one of my gripes is that we spend all too much time glued to our screens, big and small, and kids are not seen outside or visiting friends anymore as they used to in the (good) old days. Not so here in Cuba: I got the impression that people are rarely indoors here. Kids are playing together in the streets, soccer and baseball and other games, women are chatting with their neighbors, and men like to sit around small tables playing games like dominoes and chess, while they share and chug their rum-and-soda drinks. There was a famous chess champion from Cuba, Capablanca, so they probably excel at it. They are also good at Baseball - Joe DiMaggio was one of their most famous players. Let's drop some more names ... Hemingway lived here for some time, and Che Guevara was a key figure during the revolution here (and you can still see him everywhere: On billboards, posters, money, etc.)
Still, everybody seems happy here. Cynics can argue it's again the fade, that they are really miserable inside. Naysayers might say that it's the rum they drink with everything (rum and soda, rum and coke, and even coffee with rum - they call it Carajilco). The 'Havana Club' logo is everywhere, and people in the street can often be seen with a bottle (and coke or some other soda). But I think they are genuinely happy, and singing, and playing music, and will help somebody in need without expecting anything in return. And this is how it must have been at home back in the 50's, before money and electronics turned us all into against each other...
Looks like the Cuban government recognized the discrepancy between the standards of living between their citizens and the rest of the world, and introduced a 2nd currency for us tourists, called 'Convertible Pesos', or CUCs. Cubans can buy an ice cream cone for 1 Peso, and tourists for 1 CUC, which currently goes for about 25 Cuban Pesos, and is worth something between one US dollar and a Euro. I became aware of that fact when I passed by a hole-in-the-wall eatery advertising $40 pizzas, $60 with ham on top. That seemed outrageous to me, but a bunch of locals were standing in line anyway, which led me to inquire and learn. I quickly converted some $20 worth of CUCs to local pesos, and now suddenly a 1-dollar ice-cream cone could be bought for about 4 cents. Now we're talking!
I spent 2 days in Havana, walked along the waterfront, and reached Old Havana, which I found crowded but lively; Restaurants, souvenir stores, and music at every restaurant and bar, consisting of 5 or 6 guys (mostly men) in each little band, which usually includes a lead singer, 2 guitars, a bass, and percussion (bongo drums, maracas, and that guayo (or is it guiro?) instrument that they scrape with a stick).
I went to Viles after Havana, and my next destination after that was Trinidad - another tourist town, complete with cobblestone roads and a 500+ year history, with beautiful houses, churches, and, yes, live bands at every restaurant, bar and street-corner. But Trinidad is east of Havana, so I decided to visit the airport in Havana between Viles and Trinidad, and sat for an hour in the lost-and-found waiting area before continuing on my way, empty-handed.
I miss my mochila and its contents, but am getting to accept the fact that I will complete my week-long visit to the country with only my daypack. It's not that bad, actually, as even at home I often wear a pair of pants for a week, and a shirt can last a few days, and I bought a souvenir one (depicting the omnipresent Che) anyway, so now I have 2. Actually I could probably nix the daypack, too, as I usually wear those pants with 6-8 pockets, and can carry all I need there: Passport, wallet, cellphone, tissues ...
This morning I happened to look at the sky again, and now I have to take back what I said before: The sky here is different from that back home. The stars are different (I never saw Sirius so high in the sky), the moon is different, and I'm sure the sun must be different, too, if only the direction where is rises and sets. How is the moon different? I know it is the same moon we see back home, but I've never seen the crescent just lying there on its round side, like a bowl, or the Cheshire Cat's smile, if you prefer. I've always seen the moon at an angle, not vertical and not horizontal, as it is now. Could it be that this is because Cuba is not that far from the equator? Because, looking at the map, I see that it lies squarely within the equatorial zone, between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer, And if I saw the moon from near the North Pole, would it be nearly vertical? If that is true, then perhaps I stumbled upon another truism: Maybe one can tell the latitude by the angle of the moon? (Except when there's a full moon, of course, then there's no angle ...). Either that, or it's not 'exactly' parallel to the horizon. For in Cuba I've noticed that people use the terms 'exactly' and 'similar' interchangeably, sometimes saying one while meaning the other, as in 'meet you here tomorrow at 9. Please be accurate, similar, at 9.'
And I see that, in the evening, that the Cheshire Cat's smile has turned into a frown, like it's sad. This would imply that the shape of the moon is inverted once it passes its peak in the sky, so the C-shaped moon (or gimmel) would be inverted to a backwards-C, and vice-versa as it traverses the sky. And in the southern hemisphere it is reversed, of course. So the way to tell if the moon is growing or shrinking needs some rethinking... And I happen to know that the moon is growing now (the crescent was thinner yesterday), so how about this: If we see the moon in the east in the morning hours (or the west in the evening), then it is growing, while the moon in the east in the evening implies it is shrinking. And by morning I mean between 6 AM and noon, and evening means 6 PM to midnight. Is that right?
End with a Splash
After the dive I decide, instead of backtracking to Trinidad, to head west towards Havana. I stopped in Cienfuegos, a city that is decidedly not on the tourist trail, and there's little or no music to be found on the pedestrian street in town. I hear that the beach is nice, Rancho Luna, so I take a taxi there. A relatively modern car this time, a Russian Lada from the '90s, but it's still lacking door handles and the driver has to open my door from the outside. The beach is beautiful, just like you'd imagine on the Caribbean, with coconut trees, miles of sand and clear, turquoise water. I just had to buy a coconut with a straw and lie under a tree. When I finish sipping I try to peel some of the white stuff from inside the coconut, but can't get my finger in, so this local pulls out a foot-long machete and in a matter of seconds the coconut is defeated. Yummy.
A short walk from the beach has me visiting the local Dolphinarium. The dolphin show is okay, but those of us who paid a bit extra to swim with the dolphins afterwards got a real treat. Each of us has some one-on-one time with a dolphin, kissing, dancing, and singing, but the highlight is when you lie on your stomach in the water (you're wearing a life-vest) and 2 dolphins come out of nowhere, each pushing one of your feet, propelling you along real fast, until suddenly you find yourself standing up, balanced on their noses some 2 meters above the water. I stood there for maybe a full minute, while they stood on their tails under me much and held me like you'd balance a broomstick on the palm of your hand. Then they dropped me with a big splash. Good way to end the trip.
Back to the Present
Arriving early at the airport in Havana, 5 hours before my flight. Sitting on the bench outside the lost-and-found, along with some 30 other people, each hoping to be reunited with their precious baggage. After maybe 2 hours the clerk calls my name "Nero!"
I enter the building, and am led past lots and lot of rooms, each with an airline name scribbled on a paper stuck on the door: "Air France", "Iberia", "Aeroflot" ... and here's my door. I enter the room, look at scores of bags on the metal shelves, and there's mymochila! At long last! I hug it, sign the papers, and schlep it up to the departure lounge. My time machine (a.k.a. airplane) awaits.