Friday 29 October 2010

The Unpublished 8: Sham El Nessim, Egypt’s Rite of Spring

As it's spring here in the southern hemisphere, I was reminded of this piece about a memorable Egyptian rite of spring I wrote some years ago, though it was never published. Enjoy...

Many cultures have a way of welcoming the coming of spring. After the long cold nights of winter, the light and growth of the new season feels like something that should be celebrated.

In many countries, Easter has supplanted older rites of spring. Though it is now a solemn Christian commemoration of Christ’s death, it has retained the eggs that symbolise new life.

The word “Easter” originally came from the festival of Oestre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, fertility and new life.

Rabbits and eggs have always been seen as symbols of fertility and rebirth, so it’s not surprising that they have remained the main symbols of Easter.

Of course, Australian Easter falls at the beginning of autumn, which removes the direct link with spring. We are, however, keeping up a tradition which dates back thousands of years.

Back to the Pharaohs

Egypt has an even older way of welcoming spring, a day of celebration as old as the Pharaohs. On the Monday after Coptic Easter (celebrated later in the year than our Easter), Egyptians take to the outdoors to celebrate Sham El Nessim.

Literally “sniffing the breeze”, it's a day of welcome to spring that has been observed for almost 5000 years. The ancient Egyptian harvest season was called “Shemu”, so there is another link in the name.

Sham El Nessim is a picnic day. People swarm outdoors, to settle down on any piece of grass they can find. In a city like Cairo, this is no easy task. Over the last few decades, the city has exploded in size, increasing to over 17 million inhabitants in a densely-packed area.

Green space has given way to housing, and very few public parks remain. This doesn’t stop Cairenes from enjoying Sham El Nessim. Every grassy area right down to highway median strips is occupied by family picnics.

Lettuce, eggs and fish: symbols of life

The traditional foods eaten on the day - lettuce, eggs and fish - also reflect the coming of spring. The green lettuce suggests new life, the eggs suggest renewal and the fish are a symbol of fertility.

A fascinating echo of Easter is the practice of dying eggs in beautiful colours, believed to have also been done by the ancient Egyptians. Children are also given new clothes on the day, another recognition of the “newness” and change of spring.

Egypt has a way of reminding you how ancient a civilisation it is. The crumbling stone monuments of the Pharaohs are one example of this, but Sham El Nessim is, quietly, more impressive.

It’s a living connection to the people of 50 centuries ago, a good-natured testament to human optimism. And a reminder that the world’s diverse cultures are not all that different in what they find worthy of celebration.

Sham El Nessim next falls on Monday, 25 April 2011.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Tonight: Tomorrow, in a Year

One of the biggest attractions of Melbourne, Australia, is its lively cultural scene, which includes a rolling series of arts festivals throughout the year. 

The flagship culture fest, the Melbourne Festival, takes place each spring, and is always certain to produce at least one work that polarises the public. 

This year's Exhibit A was the modern Danish opera, Tomorrow, in a Year, which I saw tonight...

There are some live shows for which it's best to abandon all expectations of a straightforward linear narrative, and instead sit back, approach the thing holistically and let it wash over you. Such a show is Tomorrow, in a Year.

The premise is promising, even intriguing: an opera based on the life and work of Charles Darwin, created for the 150th anniversary of his landmark On the Origin of Species.

Its creators haven't made it particularly easy to ease into. For the first 20 minutes or so, mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin sings in a flowing red gown atop a giant glowing green brick wall, while dancers describe animalistic moves at floor level as an intense green light draws outlines in the air.

So far, so arty. But as the production moves along, the scenes open up and become more accessible. The large-scale audiovisual treatment continues, but in the lyrics and images there are references to Darwin's daughter Annie, who died when she was ten, and to his famous book; and text from his notes are projected in bright green cursive script.

The final passage is distinctly moving, referencing the diversity of life through the lyrics and glowing outlines of creatures superimposed on their images behind the performers.

To me the finale is a reminder that Darwin's theory is more than dry scientific fact; that it's the key to understanding the elegant process that has created the multitude of creatures with whom we share the planet.

It's strange, really, that the theory of evolution so threatens some people. How small they make themselves appear, by insisting they are so big.

The Melbourne Festival takes place in October each year. You can find out more at its website,

Friday 15 October 2010

The Unicycle Diaries 5: An Imperfect Grasp of the French

A fragment taken from my travel diaries written in French Polynesia, in October 2005...

Passage at patisserie this morning:

"Comment dis 'receipt' a fran├žais?"

Blank look.

"The bill... l'edition?"

Glimmer of understanding.

"Ah! Le ticket!"

Hands receipt over.

Vaguely remembered schoolboy French is a dangerous thing (especially if, like me, you never actually studied it at school). A receipt in English is a recipe in French, a French 'ticket' is our receipt, an English ticket is a 'bilet', and our billet is... oh, never mind.

Overnight, the previously perfectly sunny weather gave a hint of the coming wet season, pouring down in the wee small hours. We later went swimming in a steady light shower, experimenting with the waterproof casing of Narrelle's camera by taking pics of the hotel from the sea.

Preconceptions of paradise

The aquamarine shade of the ocean is so distinctive and somehow instantly relaxing; it makes me wonder whether it's a case of chicken and egg. Is aqua an instinctively relaxing colour, or have we been brainwashed by decades of travel brochures and tropical movies into finding it so?

It's the same with the holiday destination; we're attracted by what we know about it, what's entered our consciousness through media coverage and fiction. Polynesia immediately conjures up images of Bligh and Mutiny on the Bounty, along with an 18th century focus on free love and sensuous women.

Add to that Paul Gauguin's paintings and the tropical cliches like palm trees and pineapples, and you have a simple compelling picture. But how valuable is it? Westerners know a fair bit about Japan and nearly nothing about neighbouring Korea, yet presumably both of them have just as much to offer the traveller.

Pacific pacification

Either way, there's something extraordinarily relaxing about Mo'orea. It has the air of a quiet beachside town par excellence; akin to holiday locations on the Red Sea or the quieter islands of Fiji. The medium-priced hotels here have the best of both worlds - comfort and informality.

At night there's nothing much to do, no TV in the room and nothing but the stars and the quietly undulating surf to watch. To anyone living and working in a city nowadays, that's all it takes to qualify as paradise.

We combined breakfast with experiments involving French, and some clever deductive work by the patisserie proprietor ("You are Australian? Your chapeau is like Crocodile Dundee"). Yes, that's the choice you make when you consider the hot sun of the Pacific: risk sunstroke or risk constant identification as an Aussie on vacation.

The local shops are refreshingly un-mall-like, with wooden verandahs enclosing a green quadrangle. There's a bank, newsagency, Internet access and  a little supermarket selling fresh baguettes, limited vegetables, and some local fruit such as pineapple and grapefruit.

Even supermarket prices are breathtaking in French Polynesia, but it's cheaper than eating out all the time. For 20 cents you can even buy a sac de pain, a long narrow plastic bag for putting your baguette in - does your supermarket at home offer that?

The French connection

Back at the hotel we met Michael, a stocky tattooed Tahitian who will take us for a tour of Mo'orea on Wednesday. Turning our back on the obvious attractions of the sea (local aquatic activities include swimming with sharks and stingrays), we want to turn inland and see more of the interior landscape and local culture.

After setting up the tour, we chatted for a while about French Polynesia. He's dismissive of the push for independence, basically on economic grounds; Tahiti and its neighbours have become deeply reliant on imports and French spending over the years, especially while French nuclear testing was operating in the area.

I suggested the French would have to compensate the territory either way if the testing proves to have dangerous long-term consequences, as are already hinted at in scientific investigations of damage on Moruroa.

But Michael had done well out of Tahiti's French connection, living in Paris and travelling across Europe and Asia. He's the modern face of a once-remote people who are now connected to the world, like it or not. The advantages of this connectedness no doubt help maintain this region's vestiges of colonialism, decades after it became a dirty word and vanished elsewhere.

Propping up le bar

At night I sat in the bar for a while, reading the Wodehouse biography and half-hoping to strike up a conversation with someone. But it was one of those nights when there were no English speakers around.

Coco said hello when I arrived and I had a brief chat with him and two gorgeous Tahitian women exuding Parisian chic in strapless tops; but conversation would be too hard to sustain with our limited grasp of each other's languages, so I took a seat inside and ordered a Hinano beer.

Not for the first time, I felt frustrated by my lack of the local lingo; but there was something pleasingly exotic about sitting with a beer, reading about the quintessential English humorist, while listening to the gentle flow of French around me. As has been frequently noted, it really is a beautiful language to listen to.

The Unicycle Diaries is a random series of excerpts from my travel diaries. For previous instalments, click on the Unicycle Diaries Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Friday 8 October 2010

Japan & the Parable of the Bad Son

My father-in-law Stan Harris went to Japan recently to visit his son Bryce, daughter-in-law Megumi and her family. 

There he learned the lesson that sometimes you need to follow local customs, or you might make your son look bad…

Bryce and I visited a lot of temples in Kyoto, including the Gold and Silver Temples, and also an Imperial Palace, which is rarely used now but still gave a good indication of how royalty lived.

Japanese people were very helpful and friendly; one woman chased after us after giving us directions and invited us to come and see her 130 year old home.

Her husband was a University professor who had travelled overseas, and she was quite fluent in English. Her home had a very small yard but it was beautiful inside. There was one room dedicated to a shrine for the ancestors. 

Train travel

We did quite a bit of travelling by train and found it a good way to get around. We had no difficulty whatsoever with their card system. However, we boarded one train which was crowded and seats were few in our carriage.

Bryce was carrying a fair sized backpack, so I told him to sit down at the vacant seat nearby. He instead told me to take the seat.

I’m in my early 70s, but I felt fine and could swing on one of the straps hanging down from above. I told him to sit down, as he was the one carrying the heavy item. 

Bad son

Bryce said he couldn’t - that if he sat down and left me standing, he would be seen to be a bad son.

He explained that Japanese trains have marked seats and areas intended for people who needed to sit down while travelling. This covered people who had different types of difficulties in standing for long periods, including older people.

If he were seen to sit while I stood he would be a “bad son”.

The rules

On looking around from then on I noticed at times specific seats would have signs near them advising that they were set aside for that purpose. On occasion, floor areas were painted a different colour to signify the same thing.

People who didn't meet the seating criteria could use the seats if they were vacant. However, they were supposed to stand and offer their seat if someone who met the criteria got on board and there were no seats available for them.

From then on my grey headed old body sat down on the trains when we travelled.