Skinny-Dipping in the Aegean Sea

It’s true.  I’ve been skinny-dipping in the Aegean Sea…well, almost skinny-dipping.  Two friends and I were swimming far, far out from the shore on a trip through Europe.  The water was a clear, brilliant turquoise.

 

Something came over us, and in a contagious wave of uninhibited glee, we all took off our swimsuit bottoms and waved them wildly overhead, laughing hysterically, just to prove – as if on some invisible dare – that we could and we would.

 

We treaded water and swirled our suits.

 

We thumbed our nose at advancing age, proving that getting older couldn’t keep us from being wild and carefree.

 

Three traveling, middle-aged friends on a sun-sparkled day skinny-dipping in the brilliant blue water. . .

 

(You know, it just doesn’t sound the same if I said, “three bobbing heads of old women swinging sodden underpants where no one could see them.”)

 

When I think of that crazy swimming experience, I think of the color turquoise. Warmth and light and joy.

 

I think of friendship and fun found while floating in the sparkling waters off the coast of Greece.

An Army of Individuals

Part Three of a Five-Part Series Published in The Commercial-News, Danville, Illinois, 1994.

 

Xian, China:

 

As a young girl, I was fascinated by novels about archaeological discoveries, fantasizing frequently about being the one person to come upon a find that would shake the world.

 

I relived that thrill when I visited Xian and the terra cotta soldiers, 725 miles southwest of Beijing.

 

In 1974, a group of farmers was digging a well near Xian, the ancient capital of China. Imagine the surprise, the bewilderment, when they uncovered several clay heads with distinct facial features.

 

Excavation revealed the four farmers had unearthed one of the greatest finds of the world: thousands of terra cotta soldiers lay below the surface. Standing row upon row, organized into underground battalions, separated by earthen trenches, the warriors guard the tomb of Qin Ahihung, the emperor who unified China two centuries before Christ.

 

Since the original discovery in 1974, more than 8,000 terra cotta warriors and hundreds of life-sized clay horses have been discovered in three separate pits.

 

Never will I forget facing several thousand men more than two thousand years old. Once again, as on the Great Wall, the scope, magnitude, vision, and the wealth of China astounded me. But the miracle of Xian possessed a dimension that the Great Wall does not: the powerful acknowledgment of individuality.

In a country where the ruler was everything and thousands of nameless, faceless men were commanded to do one man's bidding, individuality was honored as the most interesting facet of human nature.

 

How can I believe such a thing? Of the 2,000 soldiers already unearthed and reconstructed in one location, each figure is different. Instead of a multitude of identical shapes guarding the tomb, thousands of seemingly real people advance. Each soldier has a unique face, a different body build, a costume determined by rank and purpose, and various hairstyles and shoe designs.

 

Commanding generals, slender guards, and stocky soldiers stand upright. Life-sized warriors hold the reins of realistic clay horses as kneeling archers aim brass bows and arrows.

 

My eyes blurred. Here was a project commemorating individuality in a country where group obedience to the Emperor was the most valued commodity. Here was a project that consumed the lives of thousands of nameless people yet memorialized individual qualities.

 

I wondered about the lives of those who had helped to create such a masterpiece. Had they ever imagined that their work would outlive them by thousands of years? Were they embittered by the work they were forced to do? Did they take pride in their craftsmanship? Did the emperor realize the extent of artistry involved in the molding, shaping, and painting of an entire clay army?

 

The terra cotta army of Xian haunts me even now, for once again I see China in its greatest glory and its most frightening heights of power performing incredible feats and producing unbelievable masterpieces with the lifeblood of its people.  

Great Wall Leaves Lasting Impact

Part Two of a Five-Part Series Published in The Commercial-News, Danville, Illinois, 1994

 

Badaling, China:

China is a land of walls. Cities were built inside of them. Beijing University is enclosed by walls and guarded gates. The old stone walls of Xian still mark the cities original boundaries. And if you ask about China, the "Great Wall" will likely be mentioned. With good reason.

 

Nothing I had read or heard prepared me for the sight. My soul rose and quivered on the Great Wall. I was startled at the beauty and breadth of this historical object that had only been words to me before.

 

My first sight of the 2,000 year-old-wall was at Badaling, less than 50 miles northwest of Beijing. Apparently, that's where everyone first sees it.

 

The wall is massive, marching up the rich green mountains of China, curving dragon-like along the backbone of rock and heaving itself along the face of the earth - for 4,000 miles.

 

But for all its beauty, there is cruelty. No one can stand upon that great wall unamazed by its vastness and its strength of purpose in protecting ancient China from hostile Northern tribes. But no one can overlook the fact that this masterpiece is built from the blood of thousands.

 

Where, after all, did the manpower come from to complete this Herculean task?

 

From political prisoners and slaves.

 

The Great Wall has been called the world's largest graveyard because when the workers died as they labored, they were simply buried where they fell - outside or inside the wall.

 

I was awed by the power of emperors who commanded millions of men to create architectural masterpieces. I was frightened by the fact that in so doing, a nation was built and individual lives were destroyed.

 

A week and a half after my first sight of the Great Wall at Badaling, four of our group who had been most impressed took our first free day of the trip to travel to another place on the wall, Mutianyu, 45 miles northeast of Beijing. Our goal was to hike to the highest point and branch off to the remains of an old unrestored guardhouse we had glimpsed from the bottom.

 

We had passed only three tourists in more than two hours and, drenched with sweat, reached the pinnacle of the hill and a "new" guardhouse (reconstructed in the Ming dynasty and only 400-500 years old.)

 

The windows and doors, as well as access to an old trail, were barricaded by gates made of brambles and branches. An old, wrinkled guard wearing an ancient red armband and whittling walking sticks stood by.

 

Frustrated, disappointed, we kept pointing to the old overgrown trail, saying in poor Chinese, "We want to go there."

 

The ancient guy only smiled and kept whittling until Brian, a seasoned traveler, offered him a ten kwai note. The walls of Jericho didn't tumble down any faster than that barricade did, and our quartet stomped the overgrown path to our ultimate destination where we posed for pictures on the boulders of an ancient, fallen guardhouse right on the edge of the mountain.

 

In a lifetime, there will be a handful of events that are so vivid you can't forget them; memories searing into your being as surely as if lightning had bolted them into you.

 

Climbing the Great Wall is one of those memories, and I am forever overwhelmed with sympathy and awe for the people who put brick upon brick, year upon year, and life upon life to create this monument whose magnificence is still felt thousands of years later.

                                                                                            

The Charisma of Camels

Part Four of a Five-Part Series Published in The Commercial-News, Danville, Illinois, 1994.

 

Dunhuang, China:   

 

More than 800 miles Northwest of Xian lies Dunhuang, a small town built around an oasis of the Gobi Desert. 

 

It's hard to imagine that the world's greatest trade route went through the heart of this hostile environment, but Dunhuang was one of the most important stops on the old silk road where the northern and southern trade routes between Europe and Asia converged. 

 

Now, Dunhuang's fame resides in the Mogao Grottoes, also called the Thousand Buddha caves, one of the world's greatest art treasures. 

 

It all started in 400 A.D. when a man saw a vision of a thousand Buddhas and decided to hollow out a cave in the surrounding hills to worship and commemorate him.

 

Others soon followed, and, over a period of a thousand years, at least a thousand caves were hollowed out of the mountainside.

 

Today, almost 500 caves remain.  These are not just dusty, hollowed out holes in the rock one might expect in the middle of a desert. Quite the opposite. These caves are filled with exquisite carvings, intricately painted murals, striking statues to Buddha, all well-preserved in the dry, desert climate. 

The first six caves were fascinating. It's hard to imagine that a dugout in the side of a mountain could become such an ornately decorated tribute to Buddha. Colorful, detailed paintings, and magnificent, bejeweled Buddha statues adorned every surface of the cave. 

 

Sad, but true, I admit that after at least a dozen different temples, three weeks of traveling, and shortened sleep cycles, peering at caves by the light of a flashlight made the Thousand Buddha Caves all look alike.  I became lackadaisical - even with the world's greatest art treasure splayed out in front of me.

 

I was quickly rejuvenated by the prospect of a camel ride and the sandy allure of the desert. 

 

My camel was a milkshake-brown shade whose humps were not the voluptuous, symmetrical mounds I had imagined. Instead, one skinny hump leaned one way, the other in the opposite direction. 

 

Traversing a hostile terrain upon the back of a dromedary was a real-life fantasy. Maybe it was the novelty of the experience, maybe it was the luck of a cool evening, maybe the sand stinging my face affected my thinking.  Perhaps our group suffered from a form of mass hysteria, but the entire gang giggled, guffawed, and belted out camp songs as we joyously rode camelback across the dunes. 

 

Afterwards, one of the tour guides asked me incredulously, "Do your people love to ride camels this much at home?" 

 

Still smiling, four of us - the most physically fit and adventurous of the group - decided to conquer Singing Sands Hill. According to legend, a whole army had once been buried there during a sandstorm. Supposedly on a given night, you can hear the songs of ancient horns and drums. 

 

On the side of the dune, 300 rough wooden steps had been set into the sand to allow the adventurous tourist to climb more than half-way up the vast sand dune. (For a small fee, of course.) The four of us were sure we could not only make it up the steps, but that we could climb to the top of the mountain.  (We had more confidence than sense.)  Step-climbing was hard enough, but the task of getting to the top of this sand trap with just the strength of our bodies was gargantuan. 

 

For every small step we took upward, our shoes filled with sand, and we slid four steps backward. It was only through sheer determination,  sweat, and muscle-burning effort that we made it to the top. We were all gasping as we pulled the last member of our group to the top, crawling on his hands and knees. 

 

The four of us stood there at the top of this enormous sand ridge, surveying the vast, barren yet beautiful dunes, breathing in a sight no one else saw. We were hypnotized by the sand abyss below us and the blindingly bare sand mountains beyond us.  Cracks, crevices, blowing grit, and a stupendous solitude extended for miles.

 

Staggered by the beauty and breathing hard from the sheer physical exertion it took to get there, we hugged each other, grabbed hands, and thrust our clasped fists to the sky in triumph. Three of the four of us had tears streaming down our cheeks.

 

In that unforgettable moment, four adventurers stood and gave silent thanks for the magnificent landscape and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see it.