“When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright. But things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in.”
– D. H. Lawrence.
Since the beginning of September, I’ve been officially storytelling in two very different primary schools in Paris, and despite the first moments of black despair for my little voice (sometimes, the louder you scream, the more they respect you, but I don’t like to rise my voice, so let’s change the rules of the game!), the children and I both enjoy ourselves telling the adventures of greek gods and heroes.
Sometimes, their remarks can be truly thought-provoking.
Speaking about the myth of Prometheus, who robbed Athena’s fire and a sparkle of her divine intelligence too, trying in that way to help poor humanity, left naked and defenseless by his not-so-smart brother Epimetheus – not to tell about Pandora! – one of the children asked : “But why did the gods enable humanity to reproduce itself, if men were so weak and fragile?” – “Does the woman make the man stronger?” – “Why man has to suffer in life”
It is not easy to answer to children, looking at you with demanding and curious eyes. Not easy, too, because they don’t like the idea of man being vulnerable, exposed to illness and suffering.
“Because even if humanity is naked and fragile and must struggle and suffer in life, to live is still a beautiful gift, and we have to do it the best we can, with our intelligence, warmth, hope, respect and generosity. Isn’t it great to achieve so much, starting with so little?”
Their eyes began to sparkle, as if the Pleiads were dancing in them : “Can we become gods, then?”
Let’s ask to Orpheus, Achilleus, Odysseus, Heraklès, let’s their voice travel through time to lull our hopes, soot our longing and make us shiver and laugh. Man and Life, challenge accepted!
Yes, a year ago, we got on a plane that took us far far away, on an amazing journey. I can’t believe how fast time has gone. So, today is the perfect day to announce the creation of an exhibition about this trip around the world and all the myths and tales we heard along the way. It will be shown at the end of September in my hometown in France, and kids from the local school will come see it. I’ll have some time with them to chat about the trip and everything else, I’m so happy!
So, here’s the poster, I hope you’ll like it (even though it’s in French!).
Fellow travellers, adventurous nomads, myth lovers and Veganians, good morning!
Yes, although my sporadic apparitions, I’m still alive, trying my best not to evaporate in the tremendous and sticky heat of Sukhothai and Bangkok : it was not useless, too, to perform the Rain Dance with the children of the sweet family hosting me, since a huge storm is now approching, with its army of black clouds full of heavy raindrops, grumbling thunders and crazy gusts of wind shaking the mango and banana trees.
However, despite our silence, we have not been idle (not so much!), and I had the chance to hear some very interesting Thai legends about Kings, twins and sacred elephants! Some of them were told by laughing children, some by jovial tuktuk drivers (many mosquitos have been unwillingly inhaled while storytelling and bumping on a country road) ; two monks, in Ayutthaya ruins and at the White Temple in Chiang Saen, exposed to me few anecdotes on Buddha and the Buddhist Hell.
I still have to finish the drafts on the shamanic Korean legends and the Japanese myths before I could report the Thai stories, and I will do it as soon as I’m home (I apologize for the suspense! But I need calm and time to think, verify and compare the stories, before writing them here). Yes, it’s almost time to go back home ; Janyce is already safe and sound in Paris while I’ve still three days to spend in amazing Thailand. I’m happy and excited to get back, see my family and friends, yet somehow it feels strange, and I’m a bit afraid…
Time flies and ten months have elapsed since we left Paris, last August. We lived many adventures, met wondeful people, laughed a lot, loved, had some issues (fortunately not very important!) and moments of deep homesickness or tiredness from the rigours of the journey (commonly known as the “E.T. phone home” crisis), sometimes even experienced fear (especially in Australia, thanks to Josh and his stories of drop bears), we were often sunburnt and dirty and covered of dust and soil, our shoes destroyed from walking… yet, it was a damn good experience, unforgettable, proving and wonderful.
I thank with all my heart my family and friends who supported me and enabled me to live this amazing adventure, and also the schools that accepted to participate to our project, as well as the people who shared their stories with us.
It was great to travel with Janyce, but also to travel alone. Two very different ways of traveling. I was scared as hell to go out on my own in countries whose languages I did not master or even hardly knew, face to face with my powerful sense of disorientation and wistfulness and bad character, but then everything turned out to be really nice, and I enjoyed those last four months across Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Thailand very much. I could almost cope with my being awfully shy, and open up, meeting the most helpful and sweet people I could ever imagine. And I could almost cope with my being lame. Almost.
I learned a lot, but am conscious there’s still so much to learn yet, to discover and travel. The common question “Where do you come from?” used to baffle me : am I Italian still, or should I say I’m French, since the greatest part of my life has been spent in Paris? Does it really matter? I’ve got two hearts, two homes, and as Socrate once said, I’m a citizen of the world, committed to a long-lasting affair with baguette and spaghetti.
Another question thrilled me : Why do you travel? At first I could not give a sincere answer.
Weeks later, watching the Maekok River flowing by and munching
magic mushrooms mango slices, during my first night in Bangkok, I realized how much time and energy was wasted upon self-loathing and nurturing impossible desires, that of constantly being another person or finding peace, freedom and happiness elsewhere… Why do I travel? Of course, because I want to see, learn, experience, but also… to overcome the awful fear of what is unknown, to put my ideas – or should I say prejudices?- to the test of reality, to be free, accepting my own humanity and others’. I travel because I want to love truly. And maybe one day, I’ll be wise enough to learn how to stay.
And you, why do you travel? Why do you stay?
While waiting for your precious answers (and forgiveness for my philosophical fluff), little observations from Skias in Wanderlust :
1. Your passport is your
preciousss best friend. Never let him in the wrong hands, or absent-mindedly abandon/drop it somewhere after drinking your second Terremoto cocktail/soju bottle. Keep a copy in a different bag.
2. Mp3 player and earplugs are vital in chaotic cities, crowded dorms, crammed trains or buses and apparently endless journeys.
3. Be patient and open to the unexpected. Plans can change, timetables can vary without prior notice, you’ll lose lots of trains and buses. But you can always manage to get where you want to. Moreover, you will learn to jump on and off crumbling trucks while they’re still (slowly) going on.
4. Trust people, but not too much. Follow your instinct and discriminate between a deceitful scam and a kind local who will introduce you to hidden pearls, out of the tourist traps. For instance, having lunch with Argentinian coastal guards and going into the Guarani Village in the jungle with Carlos was amazing, although highly inconsiderate. And yes, at some point someone will cheat on you, especially on the prices or visa procedures, or rob you in the street : learn from that slap to your ego, learn to bargain and be more informed, then go on. If you rent a scooter, carefully examine the state of your engine and note down every scratch before you sign something. Most of people are very kind and helpful, some others are not that honest and few are real jerks.
5. Have fun and cheer up at the bar, but try not to get too drunk. Especially if you’re a lone woman traveller, never accept drinks that haven’t been prepared under your eyes or in trustful restaurants. As elsewhere, some gentlemen think that buying you a beer will imply a night of passion : just be aware of your mutual intentions.
6. It seems stupid to remind this, but sometimes it tends to be forgotten : be respectful of the people and habits of the country your traveling into. It’s often basic politeness, little things that will be rewarded with kind acts and big smiles. Take off your shoes before entering in houses or temples, dress properly (even if it’s impossibly hot, especially in temples or Palaces), don’t lose your temper in public, don’t drink or eat while walking in the street (Japan – but make noise when you suck up your udon!), try to greet/thank people in their own language or gestures (bow or joined palms)… Yes, English is not enough, more often than less. You can always communicate with broken words, mimes and pictograms, though, and it’s very funny. Be careful, some body language is ambiguous : in South Asia, people smile when they are pleased or, on the contrary, embarassed. And you will soon handle the chopsticks like a true master (I can’t yet catch flying mosquitos as Miyamoto Musashi did, but I won’t complain so much of my actual skills – as long as I don’t spill food everywhere). Be decently dirty, if you can’t be all clean.
7. Get lost! Keep your sense of wonder alive, enjoy life and have fun!
Legends and myths coming soon!
Bonus! General state of your PokErika:
*Lungs : Gone with the Wind (Cusco, my killer queen)
*Legs : Dead Walking (sitting in the grass can be very dangerous indeed)
*Stomach : Sick Sad World (grasshoppers are made of peanut butter)
*Bag : The Big Bang Theory (you never know what nerdy quasars you can find at the bottom of the Universe) – the Romans called the luggages impedimenta = hindrance. They were awfully right, especially if too heavy and big!
*Clothes : Expendables (and no, I wasn’t talking about strip-tease)
*Heart : It’s a Wonderful Life! (Happy and grateful, singing Oooh-ohh)
=> Ready to evolve!
Do you remember the legend of the potato from the Bolivian stories we’ve heard in La Paz? Yes, this one:
The Sapallas were a peaceful and prosperous people who were invaded by the belligerent Karis, enslaved and reduced to misery. Choque, a young descendant from the last Sapalla cacique refused to acknowledge this state of things and cried out for help from the father of the gods, Pachacamac. He heard young Choque’s petition and showed him some seeds from a plant unknown to men of that time, telling him to plant it and eat its roots, but never touch the sprouts, flowers or leaves, as they were poisonous. The Sapallas did as they were told, but the Karis found the new plantations, confiscated them and ate everything the plants produced, except for the roots. As a consequence, they became ill and debilitated, prompting the former slaves to rebel against them and expel them from their land. The new plant was then considered as a divine gift, and called papa (potato).
Well, it seems like the maoris have one too, to explain the origin of one of their most basic ingredient: the kumara (a kind of sweet potato). This important ingredient is no ordinary food. It is said that the god Rongo-Maui went to heaven to see his brother Wahnui, guardian of the kumara. Rongo-Maui stole the divine food from his brother, hid it in his clothes and came back to earth to his wife, Pani. Very soon after, Pani got pregnant, and one day, she gave birth to Kumara. That’s how the sweet potato, so important for the Pacific people, was given to men on earth.
Hey, when you think of it, this story reminds us a lot of how Prometheus stole the fire, so important for mankind, from the gods, no?
Since I’m in South Korea, it seems that I’ve been transformed into a mountain-freak. Are you ready to climb thousands stairs and keep up with crowds of fully-equipped, flashy-clothed trekkers? You’ll discover that mountains can tragically fall in love too, that dragons haunted beautiful lakes and shamans spirits still survive not far from Seoul. Moreover, thanks to my innate sense of disorientation, I very often got lost and thus been kindly hosted by some very sweet elderly people who were delighted to share some stories about their country, even if in broken Korean and English, or simply with drawings and gestures…
Ulsanbawi (from Seoraksan near Sokcho)
In the northern corner of Seorak mountain, an impressive rock stands up from east to west, rather aloof, shaped as Ulsan city. It is often called The Face of Mount Seorak. According to the legend, one day the Great Creator called all the mountains, and immediately rocks scattered all around the country to form one of the most beautiful mountains in the world, Geumgangsan. Ulsanbawi answered the call of the God too, but its huge body made its path very difficult and it came too late to be part of Geumgangsan. Nevertheless, on its way home, Ulsanbawi fell in love with the awesome and wild landscapes of Seoraksan and decided to stay there, its gaze always admiring the broken valley.
Yeonggeumjeong-bawi and the fairies of Biseondae (marine of Sokcho)
From the lighthouse in Yeongmyeong-dong, if you cast a glance towards the East, you can behold a strange rock. People call it “Yonggeumjong”, namely “the pavilion-shaped rock that makes soul-stirring melodies” (Western language cannot equal Korean synthetic poetry, sometimes!) : when the waves break furiously against this lonely rock, a sweet melody full of melancholy arises, as if some invisible musician was playing the geomungo, a six-stringed sithar. In ancient times, the area was called Biseondae, because fairies used to descend from Heaven at night to bathe and sing wonderful songs. Nowadays, however, the mysterious sirens, as well as the suggestive scenery, have been replaced by the busy horns and whistles of the ships in Sokchohang port, built at the end of the Japanese colonial period.
The Two Dragons and the Hwarangs
1500 years ago, under the reign of Silla dynasty, four young Hwarangs (men of the elite) named Yeongnang, Sulrang, Namrang, and Ansang came to Samilpo, Goseong from Mt. Geungang, and spent three years training in the mountains before taking their own path. Yeongnang, especially, loved to raw on a little boat on the lake.
Yet those lakes were sacred and inhabited by two mighty dragons : Cheongcho was the home of the male dragon, while the female dwelled in lake Yeongnang. The couple used to visit each other by an underground waterway linking the two lakes.
One fateful day, a fisherman set accidentally fire to the forest of pine trees surrounding Cheongchoho, and the smoke and flames killed the male dragon. His mate went mad with rage and dismay, and punished the fishermen with severe droughts and poor fishings. To soothe her anger and relieve their sufferings, the fishermen called a shaman, who institued a Sea God festival and performed a ritual dance for the rain. During the festival, a boat fight is still held to ensure the protection of the boats passing through Manchon Dong and Cheongdae. But this wasn’t enough and the Hwarangs had to fight the dragon, who, since then, every winter, hides and freezes the whole lake Cheongcho to remember the death of her companion. The frozen lake takes the shape of a Dragon Plowing the Soil (Yongkyeong), and the locals use to foresee the next harvest by the direction of the beast.
The Mermaid Of Haeundae (Busan) : Princess Hwangok
Once upon a time, the Princess Hwangok of Naranda, the mythical land of mermaids and tritons hidden under the sea, married King Eunhye of Mugung, a legendary kingdom, and came to live on the shores washed by sunbeams and heavy rains. But she missed her native Naranda very much… every full moon, she would come out and gaze at the open sea, where she could see her beloved lost land reflected on the silver velvet of the waves.
I hope you enjoyed those legends of Mountains and Sea! But the Korean stories aren’t finished yet… Coming next : tales of shaman spirits and wise Buddhas!
On March 14th, it happens to be the Korean Valentine Day, and Korean boyfriends must offer chocolate truffes to their beloved (otherwise imminent break-up for the rule-breaker).
I just remembered a story I heard in Taiwan, when I was ranting against Valentine’s Day, like the true shrew spinster I am. It’s a sad yet beautiful one about star-crossed lovers, and it reminds me of the tale of Bata the Egyptian (one of my favourites!), or even the Puss in Boots (challenge! could you find the common features and tell which kind of archetype they belong to?) …
Ladies and gentlemen, the story of Niulang and Zhinu, aka the Cowboy and the Tailor, will begin soon. Please take a comfy seat and don’t forget to turn off your smartphones (don’t try to fool me, young man in the back! I can see the flashy blue reflection of the display on your glasses!). Usually, it is told to children at the Qixi celebration, or the Festival of the Seventh Night, at the beginning of August, when rain starts to fall.
Once upon a time, a young cowboy named Niulang lived with his elder brother and his wife, but the latter disliked him so much and was so cruel towards him that he had to eventually set off, with a lone cow for companion. Yet, this was no ordinary cow : it was formerly a god, but convicted of rebellion against the Emperor, he was thrown in the mortal world under a bovine shape.
One sunny day, the cow drove his young master to a sacred lake where few fairies were taking a bath. Among them was Zhinu, a heavenly skilled tailor, and beautiful beyond compare. As soon as their eyes met, both fell madly in love and they decided to get married on that very day. They had two children, a boy and a girl, and their happiness knew no cloud.
Nevertheless, such perfect happiness couldn’t last long : the Mighty Jade Emperor, supreme taoist divinity, considered such an uneven union between a mortal and a fairy as unlawful and thus sent the Emperess to recall to Heaven the gifted Zhinu.
Niulang was desperate. Touched by its master’s misfortune, the cow told him to make a pair of shoes out of its skin, once dead.
With these magic shoes, Niulang could chase the Emperess through the sky, crying to let Zhinu go back to him and his children. The Emperess thus threw her hairpin to make a barrier between the two lovers whose hands were almost touching, and the Milky Way was born to tear them apart. However, the divine magpies, deeply moved by such a strong love, decided to make a bridge over the Milky Way and Niulang and Zhinu could finally be together again, even if for an instant.
The Jade Emperor, whose heart was not made of stone, allowed the couple to meet once a year, the seventh day of the seventh month.
So remember to lift your eyes in the summersky and look for the brightest star in the constellation of the Eagle ; just on the other side of the Milky Way, the proud Vega shines flawlessly… these are Niulang and Zhinue waiting to meet again.