Features Overview

 
 
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To Be Entranced

Pause a moment to wonder about the purpose of a Sema Board.  Here’s a hint: the board is approximately three foot square.

I cannot even say myself, for certain, but I have the benefit of context and so can guess. I saw the Sema Board in the Mevlana Museum in Konya, Turkey, home of the the mausoleum of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a Persian Sufi mystic. Rumi was also known as Mevlana, the founder of the Mevlevi order of whirling dervishes.

Now can you guess?

It is said that one day Rumi was walking through the marketplace and heard the hammering of the goldbeaters. The sound was rhythmic;  the hammers, to Rumi’s ear, were beating the dhikr, or Arabic rosary. It made him so happy that he stretched out his arms and started spinning. 

The Order of the Whirling Dervishes believes that the fundamental condition of our existence is to revolve. Scientifically, they are probably right. From electrons on up, it is easy to find examples of circular cycles: in chemistry, astronomy, biology, physics, history and our own lives. And yet we often carve out linear paths for ourselves. Could losing ourselves in the choreography of the cosmos be helpful?

The mystic nature of the whirling dervishes was not acceptable to all, and in 1925, as part of new secularization policies, the Turkish government outlawed the practice. As is often the case in such situations, adherents kept the practice alive in secret. Thirty years later the restrictions were eased, and in the 1990’s lifted. In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony of Turkey one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Several elements of the Sema Ceremony continue to whirl in my head. I offer them for your perusal, in linear form complete with bullet points, my preferred methodology for managing ideas that otherwise cause chaos in my brain.

  • In Rumi’s time, those wishing to become dervishes were given a cushion in a corner of the kitchen, which is where training took place. They stayed on the cushion for two full days, eating and sleeping in place, watching the training without participation before deciding whether to continue. I have never contemplated a life change so assiduously.

  • Training lasted a magical 1,001 days.

  • At the end of each of the four movements (selams) of the dance, the dervishes stop whirling. Each whirler crosses his arms over his heart and pairs with another whirler. Shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, the two press into one another, ostensibly to steady themselves. But the symbolism of this connection resonates with me even more than the dance itself.

  • There is such a thing as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity? Check out UNESCO’s website. I love the idea that there is recognition for the intangible, for soul.

Back to the Sema Board.

A whirling dervish rotates on his left foot, using his right to push his body around the heart in a counter-clockwise direction. The whirler is meant to keep his eyes open but unfocused, allowing images to flow and blur. This is in direct contradiction to my daughter’s ballet training and the focused spotting required for pirouettes. Although I did not see this in practice, my guess is that the nail in the Sema Board helps anchor the left foot, connecting it to the ground while the world revolves crazily in front of the eyes.

I found a flat rock embedded in my patio and gave whirling a try. Without focus, I felt nauseous and disoriented. My perspective was skewed and I staggered as if drunk on the “choreography of the cosmos.” So I ask myself, when was the last time I was comfortable whirling? My father’s airplane rides? On an ice rink? Playing crack the whip?

When was the last time I could let go and be totally entranced?


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Bali Hai

The name evokes images of lush vegetation, pristine beaches, smiling people wrapped in exquisite sarongs, and the sweet scent of frangipani wafting on the soft breeze. Did I want to drag my work-weary, middle-aged self to such a place?

Absolutely.

Several airlines offer packages to Bali at incredibly reasonable prices. But my sensibilities were somewhat affronted by the idea of a package. I imagined hours in a cramped charter airbus, tour buses full of North Americans, and tight schedules to places I didn’t want to see. But realistically, I didn’t know the country, couldn’t speak the language and found it impossible to beat the package prices. My fears were unfounded. The flight service was excellent, the hotels superior (when they weren’t absolutely spectacular), and the tours fascinating, taking us places we would never have found on our own.

The island of Bali, which is about one sixth the size of Vancouver Island, lies at the heart of the Indonesian archipelago, just east of Java and south of Borneo. Unlike the rest of largely Muslim Indonesia, the Balinese are Hindu. They have strong religious and artisitic traditions. The Balinese are poor by Western standards, but the overwhleming feeling about the island is one of contentment and pride.

After an uneventful flight broken in Hong Kong, our guide, Wayan, met us at the airport in Denpasar. He was a little confused by the many names on his contact sheet and didn’t know how to address us; the Balinese have no last names. When I asked if it was hard to keep people straight with only one name, Wayan replied, “No. Names very simple in Bali. First boy childrens called Wayan. Second boy childrens called Made. Third boy childrens called Nyoman. Fourth boy childrens called Ketut. Easy.” 

“What about a fifth child?” I asked. 

“Back to Wayan,” replied Wayan. “Only four names, easy to remember. Always know where in family you belong.”

And there is no doubt that in Bali, everyone belongs. To a family, to a village, to a temple, then to God, with all the attendant benefits and responsibilities. The starkest difference between Balinese life and Western society was not the weather, the flora, the music or the dance, but the value placed on community rather than individual values. One morning, I met another Wayan, a young twenty-something university grad. We discussed health care and education, and Wayan remained puzzled by the Canadian way. “Your life is so secure,” he said. “Someone else will take responsibility.” We explained about taxes. Wayan shook his head again. “If I get sick, my family pays. Or the village. You are lucky.”

The most overwhelming feature of Balinese life is the dedication to religious ceremony. Most important are the rite of passage ceremonies, which include the oton or birthdate, the tooth filing ceremony at puberty, marriage and cremation. These ceremonies involve the entire village and the provision of food and offerings is very expensive, so often the ceremonies must be put off until the family saves enough rupiah. So the tooth filing ceremony may occur well after death, and a body may be buried for years before it can be exhumed for cremation. Add to these events family, village and national temple ceremonies, public holidays and the offerings to ancestors and gods that take place three to five times daily, and the ceremony schedule fills up. Just as their pocketbooks empty. Once a month there is even a tumpek ceremony, an offering made to useful objects. In the past this may have honoured books, trees and shadow puppets; nowadays the tumpek can include motorcycles, computers and refrigerators. Offerings litter the streets, the beaches, the sidewalks the steps and just about every doorway. Older women called tukang banten generally make the offerings, passing down their skill; they sew palm leaves into little boxes, which are then decoratively filled with all manner of objects: fruit, flowers, incense, cigarettes, betel, toys, candy and even plastic bags of coffee. One day I stepped on one that had been placed in a doorway. I was appalled, certain that my offense was grave. A shopkeeper hurriedly approached me, took my arm, and said gently, “No matter for that. Almost time for new offering. That one all used up by God.”

For art lovers, Bali is a magical place. Virtually everyone is involved in some way with music, dance or crafts, with skills being handed down through the generations. Villages specialize in silverwork, woodcarving, batik, weaving or pottery. Dance is highly stylized, and particular roles will be handed down through families. Each village has its own gamelan orchestra, made up of pairs of mettalophones tuned with a slight dissonance, giving the orchestra a distinctive sound. The tuning of the gamelans is so precise that instruments cannot be traded between orchestras. Whther by accident or design, the fact that artisitc skills are not necessarily interchangeable between villages keeps young people close to home. it also provides an ongoing living; between the sale of highly prized crafts and rice there is little need for village youth to rush off to the city to make their fortunes.

Our package deal included a series of bus tours. The timing is flexible, the package includes vouchers and we could choose when to book according to our own schedule. I was skeptical but can now only advise, “Take the tours!” For one thing, driving in Bali is something no foreigner should ever attempt. Hundreds of motor scooters, many carrying whole families, race in all directions with what appears to be complete disregard for direction of travel or lanes. Secondly, the guides are delightful, happy and proud to talk about their homeland and curious to learn more about ours. The tours became more a sharing of information than a lesson or a money trap. Even though they did, upon occasion, end up in shopping areas!

The marketplaces in Bali are very social places, somewhat less hardsell than in other countries. The women truly want to talk, intrigued by our strangeness. “Your name, your name?” then, “Where from?” “Travel much, Canadians.” Australians, Canadians and Europeans are the most frequent visitors to the island. “You got husband, kids?” The marketplace goods are mostly cheap versions of the real crafts sold in workshops or stores, but their novelty value makes them more interesting than most souvenirs. 

I learned to ask for the morning price. Since the Bali bombing, tourism is down anywhere from 65-90%, depending on who you ask, so the ‘morning price’ may occur at any time. One day, I spent a long time in a fabric shop. The wife sold handwoven ikat by the metre, and the husband designed interesting jackets and shirts. I chose several lengths of fabric, then a shirt. But the shirt was badly faded by the sun, it had clearly been sitting for some time. “No matter,” said the woman. “I make you new. I bring to hotel. You pick?” So I picked, we bartered and settled on a price. “Morning price, morning price,” she said. It was 4 pm. I asked her if I was her first customer of the day. No, I wasn’t. I heaved a sigh of relief. “You my first customer in four days.”

My single, most important goal in Bali was to see a wayang kulit shadow puppet performance. The wayang kulit uses flat, brightly painted leather puppets that cast shadows on a screen, usually made of the stretched and dried inner membrane of a cow’s stomach. Traditionally these shows last all night, so although I was looking for something authentic I was hoping to find something tourist-sized, no more than two hours. Some of the hotels had short plays but several people directed me to Oka Kartini’s in Ubud. We walked and walked until we finally came to the equivalent of an old garage filled with white plastic lawn chairs. And there was a screen; we had found Oka Kartini’s. The play began with a wizened old man explaining in English the part of the Mahabharata that would be performed that night and introducing us to the characters. I peeked around back. The dalang, or master puppeteer, was sitting cross-legged in prayer. He had two assistants, one right and one left, and a four man percussive orchestra. The story began with an explosive bang as the dalang shrieked and beat upon a wooden box with a metal hammer held between his toes. As the play unfolded, I left my seat (in Balinese, not Western fashion) and sat behind the the screen to watch the dalang at work. It was magic.

Much as I had decided that I didn’t ever want to leave Bali, it is only one of the islands in the Indonesian archipelago. A forty-five minute flight (or five hour ferry ride) from Bali will take you to the neighbouring island of Lombok, which had been recommended to us. The two islands are a study in contrasts; for me, to see both on the same visit intensified the experience of each. Bali is Hindu; ‘Lombok is Muslim. Both place great importance on the community and social harmony. In Bali, the people are outgoing, their ceremonies public, and the flora and fauna lush and exuberant. In Lombok the people are more reserved and, being on the other side of the famous Wallace Line, their natural environment is drier, sharing more species with Australia than with Bali. In Bali motor scooters are the preferred method of transportation, in Lombok pony carts prevail. Tourism has been important to Bali for over a decade but in Lombok is just beginning, so the dramatic landscapes and pristine beaches there are unspoiled. Lombok is simply not to be missed.

The package to Lombok included yet another tour, and since we appeared to be just about the only Caucasians on the island this became a private tour. So when the tour was supposed to stop at ‘a typical Sasak village’ our guide took us to his own village. When we visited Kuta, he invited us to his cousin’s house for coffee. When the beaches to the south called out to us, he stopped for an hour so we could swim. Kuta Beach in Lombok is very different from Kuta Beach in Bali. Not only is it the most beautiful beach I have ever seen, it is unsullied by a single hotel, a state that probably won’t last and so was all the more precious. We met six young boys there who good-naturedly accosted us, more for attention than goods. We joked around in sign language and then my husband offered the eldest his mask and snorkel for a try. I handed mine over as well, and the boys tried to figure out how they worked. We sat back, amused, watching the pecking order displayed by the group. Some things don’t change the world over. Finally, all the boys had had a go, and they brought back the equipment with grins that split their faces. We really wanted to give them something but were traveling light, all we had was the whistle out of the scuba bag. My husband handed it over and the boys huddled, intrigued. We packed up and were driving away when we heard a piercing shriek. They had figured out the puzzle! The boys erupted in laughter and ran down the road after us, waving.

On our second day, we re-hired our guide to take us to the Gili Islands for some snorkeling. We paid him the equivalent of $60 each, and for that he provided a car, an outrigger boat and a staff of five with their vast local knowledge for a whole day (plus lunch). I was so amazed at the variety and size of the marine fish (more than twice as many species here as on the Great Barrier Reef) that I nearly missed the giant sea turtle that was feeding below me. There was a flurry of other dramatic fish eating the crumbs the turtle dislodged but they paled beside him. Excited, we recounted the experience to our guide. “You like turtles?” he asked. “I take you turtles.”

He instructed the captain to take us to the middle of the stretch of water between Lombok and the Gilis.  “There,” he pointed. “Down there.” How on earth could he know that? Leaping off that boat, miles from shore in deep water, leaving our passports and wallets behind, was truly a leap of faith. Would the boat still be there when we surfaced? Somehow, I thought yes, and jumped. My eyes had barely focused when I saw the first one. This was not the two-footer I had seen in the shallows. My husband dove down for a closer look and from my vantage point above my 6 foot 2 inch husband was dwarfed by the turtle, some two feet longer. And that turtle was only the first. As we floated in the ocean seemingly in the middle of nowhere, eight more turtles swam below us, each on their own, each undulating like an underwater butterfly, each filling us with awe. When we surfaced, our guide was grinning. “See!” he exclaimed. “Turtles!”

On our last night in Indonesia, as we watched the sun set behind Mount Agung, Bali’s sacred volcano, we raised a bowl of arak and wondered if we could bear to leave. Our holiday had been that perfect combination of relaxation, adventure, physical activity and learning. Even now, months after my return, images of this magical place continue to fill my mind: lush terraced rice paddies rising up the sides of volcanoes, temple gates splitting the world between good and evil, prayer poles dangling in the breeze and butterflies, butterflies everywhere.

Even the memories sooth my day.


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The Tale of the Black Pig

A black pig, a government edict, an old oak tree and an open window…throw in a pile of salt and untold riches and what have you got? A good story, at the very least.

While walking up La Rambla in Barcelona, I almost stumbled as my feet stepped into a field of raw meat. Stretching across the sidewalk, a path of marbled pink led me up an escalator (also made of meat) and into a wine bar. The elegant host handed me a menu. My Spanish is poor, but as far as I could tell I was being offered a wine and boar tasting. I enjoy a good prosciutto, I thought to myself, and I’m always up for a glass of wine. Luckily I did not express this blasphemy aloud, as I would not only have been expelled from the restaurant, but perhaps from Spain as well. 

         I was actually being offered the opportunity to taste Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, or acorn-fed black pig, one of the world’s gastronomic treasures. Paper-thin slices of pork served on plates warmed to exactly 27° C (80° F), just the right temperature for the rivers of marbled fat to begin to melt, a fat so sweet it is sometimes used to wrap cherries for dessert. Paired with a crisp manzanilla or a dry fino sherry and it wasn’t just the fat melting; I was too. The sweet, nutty delicacy was a heavenly shock after the somewhat tawdry, albeit effective, meat escalator. What was this stuff?

The uninitiated will call it ham, but for the Spanish this meat stands in a class of its own. An epicure could write pages on the complexity of jamón, a food so exquisite it is sometimes wrapped in gold leaf, but I am not an epicure. I am a storyteller and the Tale of the Black Pig is an interesting one.

Long ago, when men first began to domesticate animals, the Phoenicians brought pigs to Spain from Lebanon. They interbred with wild boars and produced a new breed: large, long-legged, fine boned, with black tails and hooves. Left to roam in the ancient oak forests of the Iberian Peninsula, they feasted on acorns during the dark days of winter, becoming bigger and fatter than any pigs that came before. And the acorns were magic. Inside the pig’s body they triggered a sophisticated chemical reaction that transformed half the pig’s fat from artery-clogging saturated fat to monounsaturated oleic acid full of antioxidants. It’s good fat. I’m debating about adding acorns to my diet.

After the matanza, or traditional slaughter, the hams were kept in hills of salt for nine days, then washed and hung to dry in the mountain air for up to three years, losing half their size. The abundance of this wonderful fat allowed for the long curing time, which in turn produced the complex, intense flavour of the meat. It’s said that the only mechanical intrusion into this traditional process was a button that opened and closed the windows of the curing sheds to allow the mountain air to do its work. The result: the aforementioned untold riches and a happily-ever-after for the story.

And although that’s the end of the pig, it’s not the end of the tale. There’s a prequel.

Traditional practices such as the one that produces Jamón Ibérico de Bellota are honed by history and steeped in lore. Before the Middle Ages, bellota ham was just for peasants. The oak forests were there, the black pigs were there; bellota ham was the available food source. (Editorial note: lucky, lucky peasants!) That was before the Spanish Inquisition, when luck ran out for many.

Land ownership in the Iberian Peninsula changed dramatically as farms were consolidated under Church and military control. But the land was poor, the climate unpredictable and dry. Leaders worried that collective farming would ruin the land, so decreed that farmers had to adopt a multi-use approach. The rangeland management system that was developed required retention of the oak forest (with some thinning allowed), along with some agriculture, some grassland and some grazing. This system created a sustainable agroforestry ecosystem that remains in place today, called a dehesa. The oak trees provide renewable cork, as well as wild mushrooms, charcoal, tannin and firewood. The acorns feed the black pigs. The grasslands provide barley, oats and rye for goats, sheep, cattle and horses. These grazers keep down the shrub growth and provide milk. The dehesa also supports wild game, which is hunted for meat.

So today, despite poor land, the dehesas are not only economically successful but contain some of the highest biodiversity in the world. Home to endangered species such as the Iberian Lynx, Iberian Eagle, Black Vulture and Black Stork, they also sequester 3-5 times more CO2 than other forests during periods of bark regeneration after cork harvesting. The popularity of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is helping local farmers maintain the ecosystem and retain rural jobs rather than submit to pressure to develop the real estate. From a tragic period in history comes a positive outcome.

And it was melting on my plate. With every succulent bite I taste the past and the future. It’s definitely a happily-ever-story, just not for the poor Black Pig.