There is a natural spring on Ithaca, the Kalamos, where we collect our drinking water. It has the following inscription:
“Welcome stranger to Kalamos well
Bend and drink from your cupped hand its ice cold water
Breathe in around you the holy fragrance
And you shall return again to Ithaca.”
(A translation from the original Greek by E. Raftopoulos)
We joke about the amount of Kalamos water that we consume and say that we will probably never be able to leave Ithaca, considering that only one drink will make you return.
After nine months on Ithaca, I decided that it was time to take a short break before the summer season starts. A necessary break, those who know, say, because the island is small and you need to see that there is a different life out there. A shopping break, I thought, because Ithaca is not really the place where I can buy what I need!
So, when my brother and his wife offered me their apartment in London while they were on holiday in South Africa, it was the perfect opportunity. However, as the time came to book my plane tickets, I was quite apprehensive about leaving.
I seem to have a love-hate relationship with London. I absolutely love the familiarity (nothing really changes) and that it is a functioning, civilised, developed country, where you can do and buy just about anything. I absolutely hate the darkness when you don’t see the sun for days, the insane pace and the impersonality of it all. And, I seem to associate this place with a depression that consumed me when I lived here many years ago.
But, I still love coming here – and, I know that I can leave after a month and go back to sunny, friendly, laid back Greece.
My arrival this time around threw me off balance a bit. Somewhere, between Athens and London, I developed the worst headache that I could simply not get rid of, for days! If this was jet lag, I was simply not used to travelling anymore. The tube ride from Heathrow used to be something that I relaxed into – I had arrived – I would look at all the people and marvel at this incredible cosmopolitan city. This time around, I simply wanted to close my eyes and escape from the masses of people and noise.
I used to be a city girl. I love being able to get what I want when I want it, meet new people and live without the constant scrutiny of my neighbours – and well, that is not Ithaca. However, after nine months of simple living… London overwhelmed me. In the past I used to wander through the supermarket isles and marvel at the variety and absolute vastness of choice… this time around, there was just too much choice and I left after selecting a few vegetables and fruit and walked home. Maybe I’ll have to reintegrate a little slower.
I get irritated with the small-town mentality of Ithaca, because I don’t want everyone to know my business. But, those same people who know exactly who I am, greet me when I walk past them. And, I’ve come to love that. Here, in the streets of London, I have to suppress the urge to greet the people who walk past me. And nobody knows who I am. This city girl, who used to love anonymity, seems to have changed.
I now laugh at this girl, who, only a year ago was flying around the world, changing countries every month… and now, the simple act of leaving Ithaca for a familiar destination (I mean, London is like a second home to me) threw me off balance.
Maybe, the Kalamos really does have a hold on me.
People still ask me how I made the decision to leave a perfectly good job, give up all my financial security, leave behind my friends and fly off into the world; I tell them that it was not easy, and it took years before I was ready to make the change. They want to know how I knew that it was the right thing to do; I tell them that I did not have a choice – I knew that I could no longer stay where I was.
The following paragraphs made such an impact when I read them (at the time when I was making this life altering decision), that I copied it from the book and saved it as a reminder. I recently rediscovered it, when I was, once again, dealing with uncertainty and fear.
“For some people, there is a sudden or gradual break with their past: their work, living situation, relationships – everything undergoes profound change. Some of the change may be initiated by themselves, not through an agonising decisionmaking process but by a sudden realisation or recognition: This is what I have to do. The decision arrives ready-made, so to speak. It comes through awareness, not through thinking. You wake up one morning and you know what to do.
There may be a period of insecurity and uncertainty. What should I do? As the ego is no longer running your life, the psychological need for external security, which is illusory anyway, lessens. You are able to live with uncertainty, even enjoy it. When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life. It means fear is no longer a dominant factor in what you do and no longer prevents you from taking action to initiate change. The Roman philosopher Tacitus rightly observed that ‘the desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.’ If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness, and creativity.” (Eckhart Tolle, A new earth)
I have always been so uncomfortable with uncertainty, that I had no idea how I was supposed to “become comfortable” with it. I have always had the need to be in control of almost every aspect of my life – to keep the fear at bay. And, yet, I had made a decision to face an uncertain future. I did not even know what I wanted to gain from the experience, where I wanted to end up, what I wanted to do with my life. So, my only option was to become comfortable with uncertainty. Every time I panicked about the uncertainty, I recited my little mantra; “I am comfortable with uncertainty.” I think it got me through the worst part of dealing with the unknown and propelled me into an incredible experience.
The question that people now ask of me, is: What are you going to do now? Surely, you can only travel for so long, can’t you? What will you do for money? These questions, I don’t have answers for.
As I am semi-settled on Ithaca for the moment (the backpack packed away for now), the uncertainty about my future awoke new fears. During the past few weeks, in moments of anxiety about my future and my financial situation, I would get these visions of going back to my old job and sitting in an office, publishing books that I hate with crazy deadlines and ridiculous requirements, and I would practically want to vomit. And, then I’d think of alternatives. What about going to the UK, the mecca of publishing and start a new career there – but, that thought creates even more panic.
I’ve decided that I need to focus on the present moment – again – here on Ithaca. This is where I am happy right now. It seems that I have to continually learn the same lessons. As my savings are running out and I’m looking for ways to earn money so that I can stay on Ithaca, I find myself in unfamiliar territory. So, I guess its back to the old mantra… “I am comfortable with uncertainty.”
After all, when I embrace the uncertainty, the possibilities are infinite. Now, if only I could be ok with “not knowing what tomorrow holds”, I will also realise that I am living a whole new life where none of the old rules apply. Maybe I need to rethink my ideas about “earning a living”, and focus on what I have right now.
“Do what makes you feel good and it will draw more of that into your life.” (The Secret, Rhonda Byrne)
While I was still doing research for my travels, I came across the book, The kindness of strangers (Lonely Planet Anthology), in the travel section of a bookshop. I paged through the book and read some of the stories, but, due to budget constraints decided not to buy it. The notion that a random stranger’s act of genuine kindness could make such an impact on a person, stuck with me.
My Indian visa application was frought with problems (a whole blog post needs to be dedicated to it), and, created a huge amount of stress for me. So, needless to say, when I finally arrived at the visa application office in Kuala Lumpur, I was relieved to just sit in the queue outside the building and wait for the doors to open. As I was looking through my application forms (to kill time), I realised that I had forgotten to include the address of the hotel in India where I would be staying – a vital bit of information for the application. The address, of course, was in an email, that I had no way of accessing at that very moment, as there was not an internet cafe in sight. I turned to the guy sitting next to me, to ask him if he knew of an internet cafe closeby (because if I did not apply on that day, I might never get my visa in time for my flight to India) – of course there was none. And then, this stranger did the most incredible thing – he simply took his laptop out of his briefcase, turned it on, went online and handed it over to me. I don’t know how you thank someone for such an act of kindness – we did not even exchange names, and I did not see him and his wife after we entered the building – but, I expressed my gratitude as best I could, and will never forget that moment.
When I’m busy, or stressed, or consumed with my own life, selfless acts of kindness are often not at the top of my priority list. I admire people who give so genuinely of themselves without ever expecting anything in return. And, I’ve learnt from them, more than they will probably ever know.
I now live in a small community where the focus is on the quality of life and the value of people. People turn up at my door with biscuits, olive oil, lemons, homemade wine and marmalade, flowers for the garden, sealant for the roof, they wave when they pass me in the street, offer me a ride if I’m walking somewhere, or simply ask me how I’m doing. I’m learning about the importance of selfless acts of kindness and I finally understand that “energy flows where attention goes.” If I focus my attention on kindness and love and giving (whether its a smile, my time, or a cup of coffee) – the energy that comes from that is remarkable.
The idea for this post came to me when Babi, the local mechanic, made me a cup of Greek coffee while I was waiting for him to fix my car. I was suddenly struck by the kindness of his gesture. He was overworked, affected by the current economic crisis in Greece and constantly interrupted with phone calls and people stopping by so that he could fix something ‘quickly’. And, here I was, sitting in his ‘waiting room’ reading and he still stopped everything to make me a cup of coffee. Maybe its simply Greek hospitality, but, right now I choose to see the kindness of his act.
“The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in… love is the only truly rational act.” (Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom) When you’re away from home, and wandering around in the wide world – without much security and no form of income, its the acts of kindness that remind you of the good in the world. Ever since I left South Africa, friends, relatives and recent acquaintances have taken me into their homes, provided me with transport, moral support, travel guidance, meals, many cups of tea, endless emails, skype conversations and text messages. This is a big thank you to all of you – this journey would not have been possible without your kindness.
The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:
The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.
A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,900 times in 2010. That’s about 5 full 747s.
In 2010, there were 15 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 38 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 53mb. That’s about 3 pictures per month.
The busiest day of the year was July 26th with 95 views. The most popular post that day was Finding my own groove.
Where did they come from?
The top referring sites in 2010 were blogsurfer.us, facebook.com, mail.live.com, mail.yahoo.com, and alphainventions.com.
Some visitors came searching, mostly for stages of a hangover, stage 1 of hangover, the stages of a hangover at work, the stages of a hangover email, and stages to a hangove.
Attractions in 2010
These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.
Finding my own groove July 2010
If you don’t enjoy it, stop doing it July 2010
You have one life, live it! July 2010
The 5 stages of a hangover – on Ithaca August 2010
Hello world! July 2010
“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” [Joseph Camphell, 1904-1987]
I recently watched the movie, Eat, Pray, Love, based on the book by Elizabeth Gilbert. And, yes, I know, it did not get great reviews, but I loved the book, and… well, I’ve been to the same countries that she goes to on her journey. I wanted to see how they portrayed India and Bali – Bali especially, since I loved it there.
What I was not prepared for, was the emotion that this movie evoked in me. Not because of the story, but because of my own story. I was reminded of the time when I read the book, so many years ago. I was still living in Pretoria, unhappy with my job, hoping for, and talking about an escape. And, then I was in Bali – remembering how incredibly difficult it was for me in the beginning – how absolutely terrified I was, and hot and ready to stop all the insanity and just fly back home. I also remembered the incredible people I met along the way, and the experiences that I had. I felt a sudden sadness and fear that I would never have any of this again.
These strong emotions confused me, because, at the moment I am settled and comfortable and very content in this new (currently still temporary) life in Greece. I absolutely love the tranquility and the slow pace. And, at this very moment, you would probably have to hold a gun to my head (or use some kind of force) to get me to leave the island and fly anywhere. I’m all travelled out. I would love nothing more than to just be here for a while, find a way to earn a living (that does not necessarily involve waitressing) and just relax into this life.
Eat, Pray, Love reminded me of how it often takes only one decision to set things in motion. Life very rarely stays the same year in and year out. When fear about the future or about this moment sets in, I always ask myself: Where were you a year ago? Could you have imagined then that you would be here right now? How many of the opportunities and experiences that you had could you have planned? The universe has always presented me with incredible opportunities when I opened myself up to them – whether travelling around the world, or simply trying to find a new way to live life.
A year ago I was depressed and cold and absolutely miserable in London. I had just bought my round-the-world ticket and thought it was the biggest mistake that I had ever made. At that point, I could only think of going back to South Africa. I never thought about where I would be a year later – and here I am, living on Ithaca, in a house where my great grandfather used to live, taking time for myself and learning to slow down.
As this year draws to a close, and I reflect on where I’ve been and how much I’ve grown, I am reminded once again that you have to be open to life. It is constantly changing, opportunities come along and you choose which ones you want to go along with. But, I’ve also learnt that this too shall pass (Eckhart Tolle) – whether it is good or bad – nothing ever stays like this forever. That is what makes this journey so incredible.
Its been almost two months since my last post. I’ve been getting emails asking whether I had stopped the blog – but, I hardly had the time to answer the emails, let alone come up with a good enough blog post. See, when I finished my waitressing gig, I had to report for duty at a building site – the house in which I planned to spend the winter.
Renovating a house anywhere in the world is a challenge. Renovating a house that is on the verge of becoming a ruin – in Greece – with Euros (that aren’t worth much when converted from Rands) – during the summer season… well, maybe challenge is not the right word…
You see, in Greece, everything will be done avrio (tomorrow), methavrio (the day after tomorrow), next month or next year. In August, its too hot to work all day, and by October, most people are too tired (after the crazy summer) to work. No wonder that building/renovating a house here takes a few years. Its a slow process that requires a lot of patience.
My family decided to do it a different way. Instead of relying on the local labour force – my dad and my brother (with the help of some relatives who came during the summer) did most of the work. They built a brand new bathroom and kitchen, ripped out old rotten floorboards, and put in new floors. And this happened while I was waitressing at night, and recovering during the day (with some visits to check on their progress).
After the summer, my mom and I had to start with all the ‘fussy’ work (while the men were doing the tiling, ceiling boards, electricity – stuff that I would rather not get involved with). We were washing, sanding and painting – the walls, the window panes, the doors, the ceilings… you have no idea how much dirt can accumulate when a place is uninhabited. It seems that more time goes into preparing the surfaces than in the actual painting thereof. But, by the time that we had to move in, I did not want to paint one more surface – of anything.
Most people are amazed at the fact that the four of us did most of this on our own. The older generation are glad that we are rescuing my great-grandfather’s house. The mayor used to drive past every day and wave with a huge smile on his face (he was also our removal man, seeing that he owns a truck!) – and he brought us olive oil and wine when we moved in. Our neighbour, Maria (she reminds me of my grandmother) came almost daily to check on our progress – worrying that we work too hard.
It turns out that I was not really made for the building trade – I’m too slow when speed is needed, and I don’t like all the dirt! But, what I lack in efficiency, I make up for in quality. Having a perfectionist sand and paint windows and doors is not all bad!
“Efficiency is overrated. Don’t worry about trying to live the most efficient life or become the most optimal human. Instead, embrace life as a meaningful adventure. Pursue adventure and passion instead of efficiency. In learning to embrace change, we create the possibility of adventure. Part of adventure involves letting go of the attempt to live the most optimal life. Instead, do whatever you can to live the most meaningful life. If more people did this, I think the world would be a better place.” [The art of non-conformity, Chris Guillebeau]
My brother and I finally moved into the house (although some parts are still under construction). There are days when we sit in the living room and marvel at the fact that we can actually live in this house, considering what it looked like only a few months ago. The winter will, however, be a whole new adventure – every time the wind blows, we have to check on the roof tiles (they move!); and when it rains, we anxiously check for water leaks.
Maria still checks on us daily, and we have “basic” Greek discussions about the weather. She brings us roses for the living room, chocolates, biscuits… and this morning she brought a plant for the garden (overseeing the planting process) – and although we can hardly communicate (she speaks no English), I know how to say “beautiful” and “thank you”. This is a great home, renovated with love.
“If you want to be happy, be happy. Everything you need to be happy, you have right now. With every desire you fulfill you will have new desires. Happiness is not in the achieving of goals. Happiness is a choice.” (John Kehoe)
I remember when I heard this the first time – it took me quite by surprise. Why had I spent my whole life trying to attain happiness – this elusive state – if it was a simple choice. The more I thought about it, and realised how powerful the mind is… the more it started to make sense. When you think about it – we often tell ourselves that we will be happy when we have this perfect job, or that relationship, or go on that spectacular holiday, or win the lotto. Then, you get the job, meet “the one” – and you’re happy for a while. But, you always want more.
When you remove the expectation that something external is responsible for your happiness, and realise that its up to you to choose, you start to experience a new kind of happiness. A blissful, content, peaceful happiness. A happy that does not need more, or want it to be different – a happy that just is. By choosing to be happy, you focus your mind on the positive – this positive energy makes it impossible to be unhappy.
My mind and my emotions are quite a handful. A small thing can upset me and send me into a spiral of unhappiness. It is so easy to focus only on the negative, on what’s wrong with the moment, to become jaded or dissatisfied with life, to forget about all the incredible things that you have around you. I’m learning to let go of all those preconceived ideas about what I think will make me happy. I’m learning to focus on the now and on the positive.
In the now, when I choose to be happy, I can notice the small things. When I lived in Cape Town, the sight of Table Mountain could fill me with joy (it still does). I smile every time I see the goat herder pass me on his scooter (he always greets and waves). I find great pleasure in a slow morning breakfast (anywhere in the world – on a rooftop in Kathmandu, at News Café in Centurion, at a homestay in Ubud, Bali). I love being with my little nephew and seeing him discover his new world. And I can go on… the sound and smell of rain; receiving a parcel or letter in the post; the silver reflection of the moon on the water; doing the laundry or cooking a meal (because I have time); sitting with my favourite cup of tea and a good book; peanut butter and rice cakes; an email/sms/call from a friend; a smile; a touch. In a world of more and better and deadlines and goals its easy to forget about the small things – and miss out on life.
“For happiness, how little suffices for happiness! … the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a wisk, an eye glance – little maketh up the best happiness. Be still.” (Nietzsche)
In moments of anxiety, unhappiness, turmoil, dissatisfaction, anger – I often have to stand back and remind myself of this: Everything you need to be happy, is right here – in this moment. Nothing more, nothing less. It works every time – it brings me back to this moment, and I smile. Because, this life is perfect, if you can allow yourself to appreciate the moment.