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Letter from Cyprus

June 8, 2004, Lemesos

Dear Nadine,

It must have been the slow passage of tiny Venus across the face of the Sun. The usually sedate waves of the Mediterranean crashed heavily on the shore. A blustery wind, unexpected at this time of the year, whistled through the date palms, eucalyptus and fig trees. The sea raised white horses on the waves as I followed the transit of the planet across the sky on the internet.

photo by Rene J. Navarro

Outside the flat the pomegranates are flowering, red petals staying on the vine pod as the green fruit grows. The lemon trees are bearing green fruits even as the mature fruits ripen: these trees seem unaware of the changes in the seasons. The jacarandas are on their last bloom: you wonder how such beauty is possible on earth, and if we deserve it.

I've been waiting for May, a young Filipina who works in a health spa doing massage in Lemesos, to call. She was supposed to provide information about a group of kabayans who are interested in learning Kali/arnis de mano from me. She thought some Philippine stickfighting would add flavor to their usual off-day of volleyball and basketball. The Filipinos meet at St. Catherine's Roman Catholic Church on Sunday or at Boracay, a disco-cum-restaurant run by a Greek Cypriot and his Filipino wife, but nothing has apparently been decided. (The latest from the grapevine is that the kainan building literally collapsed because a neighbor removed a retaining wall, so the Pinoys had to look for another meeting place.) Like immigrants from Sri Lanka, many Filipinos are in Cyprus as "domestics" but they also do extra work as nannies or in their employers' restaurants, cafes, hotels, waiting on tables, cooking or housekeeping. There are four Filipino men hired as chefs in a Japanese restaurant at the Four Seasons. A Tagala from Quezon often works long hours in a bakery in Omodos, a village famous for its excellent wine. Her friend and room-mate, also a Filipina, runs the cafe next door serving coffee to silver-haired card-playing patrons; another woman just arrived from the Philippines is being trained as a waitress at another cafe across the street. V. from the Visayas takes care of a 90-year old Greek Cypriot around the corner in Potamos Germasogeia.

The stories they tell. Just today, I heard about a Pinay who collapsed in tears in a telephone booth when she heard that her husband, whom she was supporting, had taken a lover back home.

I'm new and only intermittently visiting here but wherever I've traveled I've met many of them, women who left their homeland, families and often husbands and children to face a difficult and uncertain future.

You ask a Pinay, "Kumusta ang buhay?"
She invariably answers, "Okey lang."

Somebody should archive the stories of courageous and determined Pinays here in Cyprus and across the water in Greece. I heard there are Filipino men too, but I haven't seen them.

There are Russians here, too, but they have quite a different reputation. From what I read in the newspapers, many young women from the former Soviet republics—all of them seem to be blonde—are in Cyprus as "artistes" working in "cabarets." There have been frequent reports of "indecent acts" and "compromising positions" whenever the police raid these places. In one block on the other side of the Rialto, a reputable theatre here, there are at least four such places of "entertainment."

My 12-day trip to Egypt was surprisingly hectic. I heard that there was a bad desert sandstorm with the temperature at higher than 110 F. But when I arrived the storm had dissipated and the temperatures had gone down to a comfortable level. I had anticipated a quiet time, teaching a short Chi Nei Tsang (CNT) internal organs massage and qigong workshop in Cairo and then spending a few days at Sharm el Sheik in Sinai, perhaps a day at the pyramids in Giza, a few hours to view the archaeological digs at Saqqara. But it turned out that many patients had signed up for treatments and consequently the trip to the desert and the Red Sea had to be cancelled. A few of the women I treated were veiled, indicating a conservative Muslim background; one wore black, but they were willing to receive acupuncture and CNT, some of which was focused on the area of the dan-tian in the abdomen.

Very few people in the restaurant— and most of the few probably tourists—are poring over the English newspapers for the latest casualty report from Iraq.

I did not usually sleep until after midnight because of dinners on the town almost every night. The expat community and the rich Egyptians in Cairo seem to gather either at the Nile Hilton or the Marriott Gardens to meet friends, develop a network or negotiate deals. It's like Manila, where the rich and famous and the almost-there go to the Intercon or Manila Hotel for their night out, to see and be seen.

My guide and host, an Egyptian homeopath and western doctor from the outskirts of Cairo, took me to the famous Mena House for breakfast. You can see the pyramids from the Khan el Khalili restaurant, named after the shopping district in Cairo, similar to Divisoria in Manila, where you can haggle endlessly in hopes of a good bargain. You can take your time over pita bread with humuus, or the varied cheeses and olives while chatting over coffee. The waiters in their immaculate uniforms hover around you unctuously. Very few people in the restaurant— and most of the few probably tourists—are poring over the English newspapers for the latest casualty report from Iraq. Through curtains made of onion-shaped wooden beads, one can see the three pyramids sitting in the sun, tourists being disgorged from buses, and camels for hire.

The pyramids at Giza were not crowded. Japanese tourists, with their ubiquitous cameras, were not in sight. I posed for a photo riding a camel for my grandchildren in the States. We wandered around the sand dunes outside the second pyramid, supposedly Khafre's, which was closed, looking for a place to sit. The pyramids have been fenced off with barbed wire for the last two years or so. When I visited in Winter of 2003 I asked an Egyptian colleague who also teaches Taoist Yoga to get me a taxi-driver who could take me to the pyramids early in the morning. David, an Italian who spoke Arabic and sported the Egyptian name Daud, meandered around the city at dawn to a poor village on the edge of the fence. We clambered up the rocks through a gap in the fence to a promontory where we could view the sunrise over Cairo. A uniformed guard threatened to put me under arrest. A companion cautioned me not to make sudden moves. Were it not for the timely intervention of David, perhaps I would have landed in jail for trespassing.

Last year I had been inside the first pyramid—Khufu's reputedly —including the King's and Queen's chambers. In the King's Chamber, it was for at least an hour, although tourists were herded out every 5 or 10 minutes. The so-called sarcophagus, believed to be the King's burial coffin, I believe is probably part of initiation ritual paraphernalia. It is cut so precisely, one wonders how the ancient Egyptians could have invented a saw or a drill that could achieve that degree of exactness. If you hit the side firmly with your fist, you'll hear a vibration of stunning frequency that resonates in the hall. There are several huge 20- to 30-foot long granite rocks of rectangular shape sitting above the chamber that seem to serve as a tuning fork. How and why they were installed there and with what instrument are things I can't imagine. Was the chamber an acoustical device? What was its purpose? I did Chinese qigong in several places to test the energy in the place. When the tourists were gone, a chant astonishingly went up, filling the premises with a mystical sound. It gave one goose bumps because it seemed to penetrate into the bones and the marrow and lift one to a level of unbelievable exhilaration. It seemed to have been made by a choir, but actually by a couple from Rome—Roberto and Andrea—who had been unobtrusively meditating in one corner undisturbed by the guards and came up with a soaring OM. They introduced themselves to me later outside because they wanted to know what I was doing with all those qigong postures.

The Queen's Chamber accessible at the bottom end of the stairway from the King's Chamber was closed to the public. But Egyptian guards are not immune to gratuities—bakshish in Arabic—so through the intervention of a friend, I was able to go in for 30 minutes of meditation. There is an air shaft aligned to a constellation like the shaft in the King's Chamber, giving rise to the belief that the pyramids, like similar constructions in Mexico, Cambodia and Peru, were actually part of a religious cult that worshipped—perhaps journeyed—to the stars! From my readings of the literature, I tend to agree with this interpretation. There's a cove, a niche, on one of the walls which looks like an altar of some sort.

Nobody leaves you alone here. Always, as in many tourist destinations around the world, there's somebody selling something— chilled bottled water and soda pop, film for cameras, mementos
of ancient pharaohnic times.

There are many unanswered questions—who built the pyramids, what for, how and when did they do it? How were the multi-tonned stones carved into precise proportions? How were they adjusted in place? How were they aligned? There are, of course, many speculations. What was the purpose of aligning the Sphinx to the solstices? Were the pyramids arranged in a pattern that mimics the stars? I have read many of the books offering answers. The research materials are not your "Chariot of the Gods" genre but scientific explorations substantiated by educated studies from scientists and savants. I am filled with continuing wonder. The calculations and measurements that I've read are so incredible that I believe there's something in these speculations.

Where did those constructions come from? They seem to have been put in the desert and then abandoned. What advanced civilization built them?

As I sat on a large crystalline stone that probably fell from the facade of the second pyramid, I went into a deep contemplation and surrendered myself to the palpable silence and energy. But hardly five minutes had passed when a man in burnoose (headgear) and galabeya (gown) materialized with a camel and touted rides. Nobody leaves you alone here. Always, as in many tourist destinations around the world, there's somebody selling something—chilled bottled water and soda pop, film for cameras, mementos of ancient pharaohnic times. And they are persistent. You can never say no. Badin, badin, you would say. Later, later. Knowing certain Arabic expressions indicate you are not a tourist. English will not do.

Last year, at Luxor in Upper Egypt (strange geography here because upper is down south on the map) I also felt a strange, powerful energy in certain spots in the Court of Ramses, the Colonnade of Amun and especially the Peristyle Court, which, according to R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, was supposed to be the navel of the Temple. More mystical experiences in the temples of Karnak, Dendera and Abydos!

The figures on the massive walls and pillars show pharaohnic postures. Were these positions similar to Chinese qigong? Was their purpose to heal? Were there secret messages behind the postures? I mimicked them, and it might just be me, but I felt a strong energy! A kind of heaviness, a reverberation in my body, a gravitational magnetic pull. Two of my friends in the Healing Tao Center also saw in the carvings parallels to the acupuncture points of Chinese medicine!

I should not fail to mention the felucca (sailboat) rides on the Nile at sunset under the able guidance of Captain Ahab (his real name, I heard from the hangers-on in the dock) or the caleche rides of driver Makmoud on the Corniche. The Sunset on the Nile is arguably the most beautiful in the world; it's not just from one direction but a 360-degree bowl of colors (as Juan Ramon Jimenez described in Moguer, Spain, in a poem in Platero and I). If you are a nostalgia buff or have a weakness for romance, the felucca and the caleche are the vehicles you should not miss for they represent the old Egypt. But be prepared to haggle, and pay the exact fare because Akmal will surprise you by keeping the change with a nod to the boat or horse, that it needs bakshish! You'd like to get upset of course but he does it with such charm and humor, you let him get away with it.

Egypt holds a powerful and continuing fascination for me and many other people. I'll probably return again and again to those ancient monuments. There is an invitation to teach T'ai chi chuan and meditation in the White Desert and Siwa Oasis this year. The awesome silence and emptiness make for an ideal place for going inward. The pyramids have been there for thousands of years—several studies reckon 10,000 BCE—appearing defaced, plundered, incongruous now. Perhaps someday, the Department of Antiquities will find the Hall of Records among the sand dunes near the Sphinx, which will reveal the secrets of the pyramids. Meantime, the mysteries defy reason and analysis.

photo by Rene J. Navarro

An Egyptian woman whom I treated in Cairo came to Cyprus to get a week's worth of treatments. Her father was the ambassador to the Philippines when she was a teenager. Yesterday she sent me a long effusive e-mail with a poem about her experience of acupuncture and moxa, a Japanese style influenced by Kiiko Matsumoto, my teacher in Boston, and lessons in Heaven and Earth qigong.

Over tea, we talked about the culture and civilization of Egypt. The pyramids and temples, mathematical principles, mythology, astronomy and astrology, medicine, internal alchemy (the word came from the ancient name of the country), etc., and how they influenced western civilization, from Greece to Italy to North America. This influence is not usually acknowledged, of course. You look at the architecture of the old buildings and churches, especially the Gothic like Notre Dame and Chartres cathedrals, and the geomancy of cities like Washington and Paris and Philadelphia, and you'll find heavy Egyptian influences. How about the search for the Philosopher's Stone? You read the mythology of Italy and Greece, much of it Egyptian. Even Dante's Divine Comedy clearly bears the footprints of ancient Egypt.

The other night I read my love and war poems at the Curiosity House in Larnaca, a city in Southeast Cyprus. Joseph Blessingson (that's the English version of his name), a Muslim healer and poet from the North, and I shared the stage. It was meant as a bi-communal event to make a statement about reconciliation, acceptance and unity in this divided country. I was surprised at the enthusiastic reception. Aphrodite's pervasive myth notwithstanding, Cyprus is very conservative, influenced strongly by the Greek Orthodox Church. I read poems on Hiroshima, my childhood during the war, also some confessional love poems and Su-Mi, a near-erotic prose poem. The small intimate audience asked for more, and I ended up reading two love poems from Pablo Neruda (whose 100th birthday we celebrate this year) and "Turn the Page," one of my works-in-progress.

Larnaca is the town where Lazarus was supposed to have been buried in the temple where he served as a priest for 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus. Thousands come for a pilgrimage to the church and his sepulcher under the impressive altar. The apostle, Mark, went to Cyprus, later on to Egypt, where he apparently founded the Coptic Church. Their cross is the ankh—meaning life—in the shape of a sandal strap. John the Apostle left Israel and was exiled to Patmos where he wrote the Revelations. Subsequently, he went to a neighboring island with Mary and started a church there, too. There's a basilica named after him that's in ruins. Oral tradition says Mary went into seclusion on a mountain. A small, solid stone chapel was built in her honor—a place of pilgrimage for worshippers around the world. Paul evangelized in the Mediterranean —Cyprus, Corinth, and Ephesus—and died or was killed in Rome. Cyprus is mentioned in the Bible, probably the earliest outpost of Christianity.

It's not yet known how long travelers are allowed to stay across the Green Line, the border of Greek and Turkish Cyprus, guarded by United Nations troops. As a Filipino,
a holder of a Philippine passport, I am always wary of visa requirements.

Next week I intend to go to the Turkish North for a couple of days. I've been there a few times, once with a colleague to demonstrate Chinese qigong and T'ai Chi Chuan swordplay to an audience of 60. (How I transported the weapons back and forth across the border is another nerve-wracking story for later.) It's not yet known how long travelers are allowed to stay across the Green Line, the border of Greek and Turkish Cyprus, guarded by United Nations troops. As a Filipino, a holder of a Philippine passport, I am always wary of visa requirements. For one reason or another, many countries in Europe and Africa grant visas at the border to almost all nationals except for Filipinos, so I typically have to apply for visas well in advance.

I've wanted to walk again around Kyrenia/Girne Harbor and the Venetian Walls, revisit the castle ruins of the Knight Templars, see the Kyrenian Mountain Range up close, and journey to the legendary Karpaz region in the northeastern tip of the island. Of course I'd like to see Lawrence Durrell's house in Bela Pais and have the muddy Turkish coffee in the cafe by the Tree of Idleness, things I missed the last two times I was at the ruins of the legendary Abbey. His travelogue The Bitter Lemons of Cyprus is a poignant portrait of the country in the '50s.

I've been reading the Mediterranean writers. I'll probably go through the Greek poets and the Egyptian novelists. I finished Kazantzakis' biographical Report to Greco just a few weeks ago.

I'm leaving for London on the 15th to teach a couple of private students, then fly to Istanbul to visit a Taoist colleague on the 19th. I am supposed to meet the indefatigable and multifaceted Ed Maranan, who's trying to organize a poetry reading in London. Patrick Rosal, an extraordinarily gifted poet, and I read there last June. I'll be back in the US to teach in Boston and New York in July.

From the Lost Continent of Atlantis (what some people call Cyprus now),


P.S. Just got back from the North: At the Green Line the guard said that tourists could stay in the North for up to 3 months without further documentation. I stayed from Wednesday to Friday, mostly up in the Karpaz peninsula in the Northeast territory. The area has wonderful terrain, empty beaches, unpolluted air, the Kyrenian mountain range and clear jade water of the Mediterranean. There's little industry, no radar and mobile phone towers. The cuisine was simple but excellent—olives marinated in olive oil with garlic, lemon and coriander seeds, goat cheese/halloumi, grilled meat (chicken, lamb and beef), squid, octopus and fish (chipura, sea bream, is the favorite). I stayed at two hotels, both on the coast. One of them was run for three generations by a Turkish Cypriot family who raise their own sheep and vegetables. It was comforting to see the cook take a stroll to the nearby farm to harvest green beans, steak tomatoes and spring onions for dinner. The other is owned and run by new immigrants from Anatolia, who probably took over the property formerly owned by Greek Cypriots after the country was invaded by Turkey in 1974.

The Karpaz is still generally unspoiled, although the few developments are an eyesore. A sandy beach on Famagusta Bay was undergoing the hasty construction of several hotels plus a casino: in a year or two, it will look like a miniature Reno. The old couple that owns a ramshackle tienda-cum-bar at the end of the only road will probably not know what hit them when the multi-nationals descend upon this hitherto tranquil retreat. There are infrequent tourist buses; most transport is by rental car, for now. You'll see miles and miles of virgin land along the Mediterranean Sea and every so often you would encounter a herd of wild donkeys. In the summer and fall, there are sea turtles laying eggs on the shore. My guide told me that the Greek South was like this 10 years ago, but has since then gone insanely commercial, with developments rising up most everywhere, especially on the coast, mountains are being gouged to make way for hotels, roads, houses and golf courses.

In the Karpaz, there are abandoned Greek Orthodox churches from the war of 1974. The Monastery of San Andreas, probably one of the best Greek Orthodox Churches in Cyprus, is in a sad state of disrepair, looking forlorn and pathetic against a breathtaking landscape. I saw an old church that was actually being used as a mosque, reminiscent of some churches in Toledo and Avila in Spain that carried both Christian and Muslim designs and motifs.

After the opening of the borders last year, a Greek Cypriot couple found Turks from Turkey in possession of their farm home, and their wedding photos were still sitting in the bedroom undisturbed.

In the South there are numerous abandoned mosques. I did not see any still in operation, although I heard that the Al-Kebir Mosque in Larnaca is still in use by Muslims.

Both sides speak of ugly deeds done by the other—massacres and disappearances. I met the owner of a coffee shop in the Karpass who narrated the story of his own journey as a child from a small village in the South, how he and 30,000 to 40,000 other Muslims had to take refuge in the British compound, airlifted to Turkey and eventually re-settled in the North. Almost similar stories were told by Greek Cypriots who were driven at gunpoint to the South from their homes in the North. After the opening of the borders last year, a Greek Cypriot couple found Turks from Turkey in possession of their farm home, and their wedding photos were still sitting in the bedroom undisturbed. I wrote poems about these stories, but it seems all so futile. How does a writer capture the anguish and the frustration and pain of both sides in this endless war?

In villages on both sides of the Green Line men were rounded up in the night ... There are still bodies that are not accounted for 30 years after the war... I walk in the country roads and see these abandoned stone houses, doors and shutters falling on their hinges, and wonder if under the floor or in the ancient olive grove nearby there are skeletons. And those old men stooped over their coffee in the village square, what do they know about what happened during those raids that nobody on either side admits?

In a real, sanguinary way, this little island country mirrors the larger struggle of the world, the religious and political wars, the physical, psychic and emotional wounds that people all over inflict on each other, the failure
to forgive and the limits of human love.

Called the island of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, Cyprus has probably never experienced real peace at any time perhaps for the last 1000 years or more. You read its long history of colonization and from the names you encounter, you see the oscillations of conquest and colonization—Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Cato, Anthony, Cleopatra, Constantine, Alexander, Ottoman, Byzantine, Venetians, Turks, Greeks, UK. Each generation seems to have suffered war, invasion, strife. After 1974, the Green Line was drawn east-west; in many places it is actually a barbed wire fence running the length of this picturesque country of about 800,000 people. In a real, sanguinary way, this little island country mirrors the larger struggle of the world, the religious and political wars, the physical, psychic and emotional wounds that people all over inflict on each other, the failure to forgive and the limits of human love.

There have been calls for reunification but where do they begin? Last May at a referendum the North voted Yes while the South voted No to the Annan Plan. Indeed how do they start all over again?

© Rene J. Navarro

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