Soaking Wet in the Troodos Mountains

Twenty years ago, when Tina first visited the Troodos mountains with her family, the roads were unpaved and extremely narrow. Her Uncle Pete drives professionally, so they were in good hands, but I can’t help but think what a harrowing experience that must have been. Because twice this week, we have driven those same roads, only now they are paved…and there are guardrails everywhere. The roads are still narrow. In some places, the roads have hairpin turns with no visibility around the corner.  And those particular roads will sometimes truly only accommodate a single vehicle. And occasionally, they are still unpaved.

It is a testament to the villages, scenery and beauty of the ancient churches nestled throughout the Troodos that we make this trip, not once, but twice. I think I could spend months in those mountains before I was satisfied that I had a good sense of the place…another time perhaps.

The first day, we ended up driving mostly. The map we have is not very reliable, so we were just pointing our car in the general direction and crossing our fingers. We spent a good bit of time in Platres, a beautiful and comparatively large village in the Troodos. We stopped at the Chocolate Factory for three chocolate shakes and perfectly divine “Metrio” chocolates. This is a rather unassuming little place where chocolates are made by hand. And the flavors sound incredible. I wish I could figure out how to get some back to Houston, but that is unlikely. They would be eaten halfway through the flight, I feel certain.

We ate lunch at a gorgeous second floor café called To Anoi. I simply cannot imagine why anyone here would choose to dine at any place that does not look like it came out of a storybook. We sit in plastic chairs, but the deck is beautiful and the view is stunning. Again, the indoor area of the restaurant is fairly small…everywhere here, it is clear they understand the value of the atmosphere. It is possible I will never be able to enjoy dinner out in Houston again.

But the highlight of the day was the Kaledonia falls. We climbed through gorgeous unusual trees, on a stone strewn path, beside a river rushing over stones down the mountain we just navigated up. The signage is unclear and we keep thinking the small falls we are walking by may be all there are to the falls, and this is plenty. Even the small falls are incredible and worth the hike up. We are just about to turn around and descend when we hear Jesse and Grant, who have dashed ahead of us, say “Oh My God, we found the falls.”

The heat was stifling…which is probably what prompted Jesse to walk straight into the falls. Shoes, socks, clothes…everything.

Needless to say, we all ended up hiking down the mountain soaked from head to toe.

And happy.

The second trip up into the Troodos…coming soon.



Tonight, I learn a little something about rescues

There is something hypnotic about sitting in the middle of a conversation in a language you do not understand. Something about the familiar cadence and the unfamiliar words causes my brain to flicker in and out this afternoon…as if I were trying to fall asleep in self-defense. I watch Tina and wonder if it’s worse for her, because she understands enough of the Greek conversation surrounding us to follow it, having been exposed to the language her entire life, but not enough to truly participate. Her brain is grasping the edges of the conversation, so must be working very hard.

The topic of conversation is music. The people we sit with are professional musicians of one variety or another. If it weren’t for the fact that I am a stranger here, I would be of no interest at all in this room and I am lulled into a false sense of invisibility that one gains by being completely unable to comprehend anything that is going on. This does not last long. My heart races as I realize that Ellie is referring to me in something she says. My dull, glazed over look feels inappropriate when I am suddenly referred to. I can tell she is letting them know that I told her months ago about Kataklysmos, the festival in town…that she knew nothing of it until I told her about it. Her story is clearly charming and animated…I am clearly surrounded by storytellers actually…but still I can’t follow. Though no one seems to notice, I find myself embarrassed by the fact that I am making the freshman traveller mistake of mirroring the movements and expressions of the people talking without understanding what they are saying. I feel a little like a bobble head doll.

Ellie’s friend, Mary, has been scurrying around making sure the house is in perfect condition for us. Unnecessary, really, as it was beyond perfect when we walked in. Unexpectedly, she slides into the room beside me and asks me if perhaps we would like to go for a walk to see the beach. I dearly hope my rush for the door didn’t appear as desperate as it felt. I did not even want to take a moment to change into more comfortable shoes and risk the chance that the opportunity would pass. The people in the room with us were clearly so sweet and kind. But my brain ached from trying to remain awake. Plus, I wanted to see the beach.

Tina and I walked with Mary and she spoke to us in English. She was quite capable of communicating with us, but I felt bad that she had to make the effort, having just scrambled out the door to escape the challenge to my own brain.

Mary’s 21 year old son was studying in the states when he was diagnosed with cancer and told he must go to Houston to be treated. She took an eight month leave of absence from work and rented an apartment in Houston to be with him during the treatment. She was alone in a huge city where she knew no one, spending the few hours a day with her son, as she was allowed while in cancer treatment and then returning to her apartment alone. The thought of this truly dear woman enduring this time alone fills me with so much grief that I am grateful when the well of emotion running through her slows her to standing. Motion seemed inappropriate given the intensity of story. The story she shares runs so deep in her that I can literally feel the lonely ache of sitting by herself in an empty apartment counting the hours until she could be back with her son. And this is how I learn about Ellie.

I have known Ellie for years, of course. But today, standing along the beautiful beach as the sun sets, I really learn about her in a way that would be impossible except through the words of a woman like Mary.

Ellie received the call about Mary through the Cypriot network in Houston and sprung into action. Every day for eight months, Mary could count on Ellie’s call, a connection to something other than the fear and loneliness that filled her days. Ellie came often to pick Mary up from her apartment and take her shopping, to lunch or dinner, or to just sit amongst the noise and chaos of a house full of people somewhere. Mary was clearly not a charity case to Ellie, Mary was a sister…a sister who needed her.

Suddenly, the fuss over ensuring our comfort was understandable. I came thinking that Mary felt indebted to Ellie and was happy to have a chance to give back to her in some way. But this is not really it. Mary was inviting family into her home. She is proud to have us here. Having us stay somewhere else is unthinkable, not because she has a debt to pay but because she loves Ellie, and by extension, us. And she truly does.

I have always loved Ellie. She is easy to love. But as we walked back to the house this evening, I loved a part of her that I had not really known before. Ellie has a gift for making family of strangers. She gives where she is most needed. She loves those who most need her love.

I silently thank Mary for the fresh glimpse of Ellie.


Manual Transmissions and Halloumi

I am sitting at an umbrellaed garden table in the small courtyard of the gorgeous summer house that has been loaned to us for the duration of our stay here in Oroklini, a small town just outside of Larnaka. I make a note to myself to always lay a feast for visitors when they come to stay with us. I sit here eating fresh watermelon and the salty, chewy Cypriot cheese, haloumi. It has been available in Houston for some time now, but I have never eaten it with watermelon. As many times as Tina’s family has suggested it, I have resisted the pairing of salty and sweet…the contrast of textures. Today, I am wondering why. They are perfect together. It is watermelon season in Houston (probably everywhere). If I were there, I would make a feast of these two items and invite you over. All of you.

I can see, from where I am sitting, the car that I drove here from the airport. I was not expecting to drive at all, but the rental car reserved for us was too small to fit us AND our luggage. I realized half the way to the house that:

  1. I have never driven in another country.
  2. I am driving a manual transmission for the first time in over 25 years and
  3. I have no way to contact anyone should I get separated from the three car convoy heading to a house I don’t have any information on.

Despite this, I was actually relaxed for the entire thirty minute drive. But still I glance over to the car now, as if I need confirmation that I actually did that. And it makes me laugh. I’m glad I didn’t know that this would be necessary.

The kids are immediately whisked away by Photos, the son of our hosts, for a tour of Larnaca and I am deeply grateful to him. He is an accomplished musician, about 30 years old and is currently in the process of writing a musical. As they walk out to the car the conversation moves to iPods and pop music. Had I wished for the perfect afternoon host for our gang, he could not have been more perfect than Photos. I lean back in my chair with a feast before me and Tina beside me, and melt into a perfect moment under flower vines and palm fronds.



Who Was Actually in Hell?

I’ve dropped into hell. You’d love it.

I got this text message as I was sitting in a sanitized lobby, waiting for a client meeting. As sure as I was that I was surrounded by juicy and intriguing stories, this was of no comfort to me today. I was not here to pry these secrets from the people walking by, practically sweating their words from their pores. I was there to discuss a project that, in the big scheme of things, was completely insignificant. Those delicious secrets would stay wrapped up in ties, slacks and shoes…the uniform that would remind everyone where they were after all.

I was on my way to a meeting, in heels and business clothes, when the truck I was driving began smoking and died along the side of the freeway the day before. It was about 10,000 degrees on the asphalt and there was no easy way for me to remove myself from the situation on foot. I hid the key in the truck, called the insurance company to arrange for the tow and then my sister to come take me home (Tina was in a meeting over an hour away). This is apparently not how it goes. Leaving your vehicle opens you up to all kinds of issues. Which is why, a full day and a half later, Tina is sitting for nearly three hours in the lobby of an impound lot waiting for the tow truck to finally arrive.

The woman in here has been yelling at me the whole time I have been here.

I have no idea why Tina thinks I would love to be in her shoes, apart from the fact that I am wishing like crazy that I could spare her the torture of her situation. When I get the text message above I cringe and cannot imagine how I am going to manage to keep my composure through the next three hours of meetings…meetings about nothing.

The woman here is threatening to go to lunch before the tow truck gets here.

As I wait, I am getting these texts AND a myriad of phone calls from the insurance company, who is arranging our tow (why was the vehicle on the side of the road again?), the tow truck driver (does the lot require us to have an SPD license?) and a dozen or so recorded messages continually adjusting the time when the driver will be at the lot. No matter how many time I give them Tina’s number, she is at the lot with the truck after all, they continue to call me. This keeps me in a state of high alert.

Mean woman starting to feel sorry for me.

At dinner, Tina tells me about the afternoon and I understand why I got the first message from her. She was sitting in the middle of a colorful story, characters running through the scene, dropping dialogue that would be hard to produce convincingly on a stage.

Lot Manager (glaring): Who’s that you’re talking to?

Tina (timidly in the corner of the room): The insurance company. They say they have been trying to call you.

Lot Manager (narrowing eyes): Well, I’ve been sitting here the whole time and the phone ain’t rung, so they ain’t called me, have they?

Tina: Can you talk to them on my phone?

Lot Manager: I ain’t talking to no one that don’t call me on this phone!

(Tina confirms number and asks them to try again. Phone rings in the office)

Lot Manager: Hello? Well you know I gotta have that ______ form before they can pick it up. It don’t matter, I still gotta have it. That just don’t matter, if I don’t have the form, I can’t release the truck. (hangs up the phone)

Over the two and a half hours that Tina shares an office with this woman and assorted drivers, she begins to learn about them. She witnesses one side of gentle private conversations the lot manager has with a child on the other end. She hears the same woman defend one of the drivers who is apparently not treated well by the others. And, as she fingers one of the two bibles perched prominently on her desk, she casually tosses some unexpectedly gentle nudging into the conversations.

Driver: He don’t share nothing of his and he comes in every day and just helps himself to our cokes. He brings just enough for himself and looks at you like you crazy if you ask him to share…but he just helps himself.

Lot Manager: Has he ever been any different?

Driver: Not a single time.

Lot Manager: Well then, you gotta forgive him, don’t you?

Tina’s right. I would have loved it. I would have been scribbling notes like mad on scraps of paper had I been there. As it was, I was absorbed in her telling of the story, even in the scant detail of someone who does not hold a story on her tongue like the delicious melting of dark chocolate. I can taste enough of the detail to wish it had been me there. To wish that those two and a half hours had unfolded for me, layer by layer, as it had for her.


A Miraculous Shift in Perception

I sat on one of thirty or so hard gray plastic stools at the back of the temple meant to catch the overflow of the faithful. I knew the minute I stood on the outside of the door to this sanctuary that I would join them, though no westerner appeared to be among the worshipping. I still do not know where this bravery is coming from. I keep wondering if it has something to do with all the times when I was little and chickened out when dared to do something…like I am making up for all those dares now. Brian McElroy, if you are reading this, I would totally swing on that rope swing over that mean old man’s backyard ditch if you dared me today. No way would I let you tease me about chickening out for an entire two years that followed that little incident.

But this does not feel like something I am daring myself to do. Not like the zip lining in Belize. Not like the drive to get on the White House Staff during the Economic Summit when it came to Houston. Not like buying a bus ticket in Singapore to go into Kuala Lumpur all by myself. I felt pulled into this place. This place on Waterloo street, in Singapore that houses the holy relic of one of Buddha’s teeth.

This place is considered one of the holiest places in the world, let alone Singapore. Tourists pace around the courtyard, not daring to go in, but wanting to take pictures of getting close to it…of the colorful and ornate interior that is easy enough to capture without actually entering. They will let you take pictures anywhere in here, but I store my camera as I light a joss stick, pray for peace and place it reverently in the sand outside the temple door…I know how to do this now.

Inside there is a sign indicating that it is proper, but certainly not required, to make an offering of a candle and/or flowers to the Buddha. I make my way to the stand at the side where a gentle lady takes my money and hands me a candle wrapped in flowers…assuming I know what to do with it. I do actually, but only because I just saw someone else make her offering before taking her seat amongst the faithful.

This building has five stories, the top four house museums, a gift shop, gardens, a tea shop and the golden protected sanctuary where the sacred relic is kept. But for now, the chanting draws me to the wildly ornate inner chamber…to the chanting of the monks.

Todays’ recitation comes from the Sutra, verses 33-36. I don’t know this at the time, of course. It is only later, when I wonder what it was that moved me so much, that I decided to look it up. The appropriateness of this message to me right now, in this moment is not lost on me. The universe is divine and there are many paths to God. Here are the verses, translated:

33. If you want to completely liberate yourself from fear and end all internal formations and doubts, You must know that if you haven’t pulled out the arrow of desire, then you haven’t understood yet that this body is suffering.

34. Among the highest things that people call the most divine Nirvana is the highest. You must cut off all ideas and attachments and do not be deceived by words.

35. Knowing how to refrain or not to refrain that is the highest practice of letting go. If in our heart there are thoughts of practice the shell will be cracked.

36. Of all offerings, that of the Dharma is the most precious. Of all kinds of happiness, that happiness based on the Dharma is the greatest. Of all strengths, patience is the most powerful because it can put an end to attachment and bring the happiness of Nirvana.

Pulling out the arrow of desire…patience putting an end to attachment…my western mind struggles with these concepts, even though I feel the truth of it in my heart. But I don’t know any of this message as I sit in the middle of people who, like me, are sitting on small gray overflow stools. But who, unlike me, are following along in their own book of the Sutra (at least that I what I am guessing they were as it was all in Chinese characters) and sing-songing along with the orange robed monks who floated through the room at intervals delivering critical components to the service that I did not understand, as they chanted. I bowed when everyone else did. I turned to face another direction when everyone else did. But mostly, I closed my eyes and let the sounds of the hour and a half service pour over me and then through me. My heart understood something my mind could not.

And after twenty minutes or so, my mind rested and stopped trying to figure out if I was in the right place. I stopped worrying that I did not really belong there. I stopped wondering if the people there judged me for intruding on their sacred service. I know so little about Buddha, but what I felt in there was acceptance. I was creating my own separation, my own doubt, my own judgment. And I stopped.

And when I did, I could hear the chanting differently. What had frankly always felt sleep inducing and a little like droning to me, suddenly held passion and fire. What had felt cold and emotionless, now had life, warmth, intensity. How had I missed this? How is it possible that I had shut myself off from the experience of this with my own restrictive perspective?

The entire temple was stunning. In total, I spent more than three hours there, yet it felt like almost no time had passed. I walked through the gardens. I explored the museum. I turned the prayer wheel and I meditated before the Buddha’s tooth. But nothing could touch the experience of just being part of a flow I have been a part of that evening. Once again, my experience of a temple in Singapore defies my expectations and opens space in me that I didn’t know was there.

Taken long after the service ended, as I was leaving.



Sustainability and a Cup o’ Joe

Tina and I read this book a few months ago. It was truly an inspiring read. This is a parable for how flexibility is crucial for true sustainability. Michael Gill Gates literally reinvented himself from scratch…with help from an unlikely source given his background and connections.

Embedded video from CNN Video

It is not a book that will having you pouring over his turns of phrase…and you may find the name dropping a little much, although I have to say it really gave me incredible context for his transformation given the privelege he enjoyed from birth.

It is a quick and thoroughly enjoyable read. Pick it up. You can get a used copy on Amazon for 2 bucks and some change.