Quin's Progress


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Vermicelli’s Venus

Botticelli's Birth of Venus

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

Aphrodite. Venus. Everyone’s favorite mythical goddess of love, sex, and all things sensual. Inspiration for innumerable classical works of art, including Botticelli’s masterpiece, The Birth of Venus—easily, one of the top three most commercially exploited images of the Italian Renaissance (the other two being Michelangelo’s David and da Vinci’s Mona Lisa).

Botticelli should have named his famous painting The Debut of Venus, or something like that, because it really depicts the goddess’ post-birth arrival on the scene, after she surfed around the ocean “like sea lettuce” on her seashell, according to The Anacreontea.

Painting by Melinda Copper. See: http://www.melindacopper.net/cat-gallery.html

Painting by Melinda Copper. See: http://www.melindacopper.net.

Had Botticelli instead painted the commonly accepted version of her mythical birth, the image would likely not have ended up being silk-screened on tens of thousands of t-shirts and coffee mugs today. Why? Because, that scene involved the cutting off of the evil god Uranus’ genitals with a serrated knife by his son, who then tossed the severed twigs and berries into the sea, where they swirled around for a while until they turned into a lovely maiden (as they do), who sprang forth from the sea foam on the island of Cyprus. Ta-da! Aphrodite. But, that’s more like Goya subject matter, if you ask me. Botticelli was a little too genteel for such carnage.

Ruins of the Sanctuary of Aphrodite in Kouklia, Cyprus.

Ruins of the ancient Sanctuary of Aphrodite in Kouklia, Cyprus.

In any event, the precise location our lady of the amputated junk is supposed to have risen from the sea, according to the ancient cult of Aphrodite, is a big rock on the southern coast of Cyprus, conveniently near where they built a massive temple in her honor around 1500 B.C. The mythical birth site inspires TripAdvisor contributors to reach into the profound, romantic depths of their souls, and wax poetic:

  • “there is a parking place and … [t]here were rocks but also some sand on the beach” — EdyT;
  • “nothing to see just a big rock” – jacyW from the UK;
  • “not very nice beach and horrible car park” – sleepycat from the UK;
  • “weird and ugly, lots of seaweed” – GezaS;
  • “it’s just a rock in the sea” – Droglis from Ireland.
This is where I was having breakfast.

This is where I was having breakfast.

I was laughing at these earthbound reviews over breakfast one morning while in Paphos, Cyprus, and the waiter asked me what was so funny. I showed him the reviews, and he grimaced, as though a foul smell had wafted past his nose. “These people don’t deserve the magic,” he said in his sunkissed Mediterranean accent. “When there is a rainbow, they probably complain about the rain.” And then he told me about the local legend, that if you find a stone on the beach in the shape of a heart, you put the stone in a hole or crevice on Aphrodite’s Rock, and the goddess will bring you love and passion within a year.

IMG_5039The site is easy enough to find, well marked, right off the coastal highway southeast of Paphos, and the car park, while nothing to write home about, was not horrible at all, contrary to what sleepycat from the UK might say. Access to the beach, however, was another story. I crossed the highway, and looked all the way up and down the road for an opening in the safety barrier that keeps people from careening off the bluff into the ocean. Not a break in the fence as far as the eye could see. The double-railed barrier was just high enough to be difficult to climb over, and just low enough that I wasn’t willing to try to wiggle under it. So, I opted for the trusty, grade school era, “dead man’s drop” method of clearing the obstacle, wherein you hoist yourself up on your hands, with the top of the bar at your hips, and lean over it until gravity tips you over and you feel yourself about to drop on your head on the other side, at which point you kind of flip your legs over and land on your feet.

Re-enactment of the Dead Man's Drop maneuver.

Re-enactment of the Dead Man’s Drop maneuver.

IMG_5027Not having performed this maneuver since the fifth grade, however, and not being 11 years old and 85 pounds anymore, mine was somewhat less graceful, vastly more painful, and the dismount resulted in the sacrifice of a sandal, and a pulsating hematoma on my upper thigh meat that’s going to look like a stained glass window in a few days. But, I had successfully reached the other side. It was only when I reached the bottom of the treacherous path down to the beach that I noticed the nice, flat, paved pedestrian tunnel under the highway to the other side. That would definitely have been easier, both on my body and my pride. Note to self for next time.

IMG_5009

This is where I clambered over the safety barricade.

I don’t know what all those curmudgeons on TripAdvisor were talking about. I thought this place was sigh inducing. Okay, the beach isn’t sandy, but the blue suede sea, checked by the rocks, enters the cove in voluptuous, rolling swells without breaking into waves, and just dissolves into the shore, never ceasing to be serene, gentle. Curved around the edge of the water, there is a narrow bed of some kind of reedy, gingery seaweed, just like the wavy, Titian-colored tresses of Botticelli’s Venus.

Aphrodite Rock1There it was. The birthplace of Aphrodite. The rock where she burst forth from a spray of sea foam. A place that countless devotees of the ancient cult of Aphrodite held holy, and where modern, lovelorn Cypriots come to pray for love. It does have a certain reverence-demanding quality to it.

IMG_5020I walked along the beach, up to the sandy part mentioned in EdyT’s TripAdvisor review. There in the sand, I saw where someone had placed a bunch of stones in the outline of a big heart. The waiter’s words instantly came back into my head: if you find a stone in the shape of a heart…. Was this what he was talking about? I couldn’t take any chances. So, I stripped off my clothes—silently confirming to myself that this was precisely why I wear my swimsuit under my clothes when I explore near any swimmable body of water—stashed them, my iPhone and my rental car key under a bush, and got to work.

IMG_5024

See the stones in there?

That heart outline was composed of about 20 stones in all, and some of them were about the size of a softball, so I couldn’t take them all in one trip. I took as many as I could in my hands and the bra cups of my swimsuit, and I swam out to the rock. I had to find holes or cracks in the rock that would accommodate each stone without it falling out in the tide and sinking, which was complicated by the fact that there were hordes of crabs living in most of the waterline level holes. I paddled, circumnavigating that big rock, buoyed up by the ocean swells, grabbing on and climbing at times, apologizing to the various crabs and sea monkeys I disturbed in the process, until I found secure homes for each one of those stones. It took me about six trips, all told.

When I finished, I just floated on my back in the cove, and laughed at myself for being such a silly, romantic dork. But, I say, better a romantic dork, than someone who can only see “just a rock” and a “horrible car park.”

Invasion of the Russians.

Invasion of the Russians.

Then, a big tour bus full of Russians showed up and invaded my peaceful scene, so, I rose from the sea like Venus, collected my things from under the bush, and took the nice, easy, non-contusion-inducing pedestrian tunnel back to the parking lot.

On my way back to town, I stopped to buy a bottle of water at a little roadside convenience store, and I noticed a framed photo of the Aphrodite’s Rock site behind the register. What caught my eye about it was that the central focus of the photo was not the big rock out in the sea, but another, bigger outcropping of rock that looked more like a separation from the cliff, that jutted out into the water, but wasn’t surrounded by the ocean. I got a vaguely sick feeling in my stomach.

Aphrodite Rock2“Excuse me,” I asked the cashier. “Which rock is actually the Aphrodite Rock?”

“This one,” she said, pointing to the central one on the photo that extended from the land.

“Not that one?” I said, pointing to the rock way out in the water, that I had just spent the last 90 minutes or so swimming out to and climbing on to plant little, stone love seeds inside of.

“No, it’s this one,” she said, tapping the photo to indicate the other rock that you can walk to without getting wet, or even taking your shoes off.

Aphrodite Rock3“Are you sure?” I gave her one last chance to show some doubt.

“Yes, it’s this one.” She was certain.

“Crap!” I exclaimed.

“What?” she inquired, a bit alarmed.

“Oh…nothing,” I sighed, and walked dejectedly away.

Story of my life. I go on a pilgrimage all the way to the church of the nativity of the goddess of love, and I end up mistakenly worshipping at an outbuilding. Disqualified on a technicality. But, then I had to laugh at myself again, when I remembered that the whole thing is made up anyway. The entire point of fixing a location for such a mythical notion is to give people—in times gone by, and now—a place that triggers for them an openness to the feelings represented by the goddess. When you look at it that way, it doesn’t really matter which rock I tucked those stones into. It’s really just all about deserving the magic.

Unretouched photo of the sunset that same night.

Unretouched photo of the sunset that same night.


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Freebird

She saw me coming a mile away.

She saw me coming a mile away.

In the streets of Yangon, and at temple gates in various cities in Myanmar, there are girls with baskets full of finches. Perky little finches, cheeping cheerfully and hopping about. For 500 Kyat (about 50 cents USD), the girl will reach into the basket, bring out one of the wiggling birds, and place it in your cupped hands. Then, you make a wish and set the little birdie free.

finchesBuddhists believe that such small acts of kindness give them extra merit points in their karma banks, to be totaled up with all their other good deeds and weighed against all their bad deeds when it comes time to be reincarnated. Every little bit helps, especially if the balance is already tipping toward reincarnation as a dung beetle or one of those birds that picks dead meat out of crocodiles’ teeth. And, although superstitions are generally inconsistent with Buddhist beliefs, many people consult astrologers to tell them how many of these little birds to set free to balance out a bit of naughtiness, or give extra power to especially important prayers.

You go, little finchy!

You go, little finchy!

It’s quite an uplifting feeling to watch that little creature flutter into the sky from your outstretched hands, carrying your good intentions into the world. The first time I tried it, I was so exhilarated, I ended up buying out the girl’s whole basket of birds. At 30-something finchies, it was the best fifteen bucks I’d spent in a long time. If it keeps me from being reincarnated as a Muni driver, so much the better.

Finch LadyThat girl was waiting for me on the same corner the next day. I knew I was being had, but I was happy to go along with it, and cleaned out her finch inventory again. It really puts you into a good mood to release those little guys and watch them streak off to freedom. That and a good breakfast pretty much ensure that you’re going to have an awesome day.

Girl with finches-2Then some killjoy told me that the birds are trained to return to the owners, and they end up back in the same basket the next day. I didn’t want to believe it, so I asked around, and it’s apparently true. I have no idea how you train a finch, but I guess it’s doable. So, perhaps I released the same bunch of birds two days in a row. But, I say, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! It’s still magical to hold that quivering little body in your hands, feel it pinch you impatiently with its dainty beak if you take too long formulating your wish, and see it take off and reclaim its liberty. Setting it free is all I can do; if the bird has been trained to surrender itself again after being emancipated, that’s on someone else’s karma account. And, maybe one or two of those tiny guys took advantage of the chance to make a real break for it, and didn’t come back. I hope so.  Unless they get eaten by bigger birds or lizards or something.  If so, then I hope they were back in the safety of their basket by nightfall.

Basket of finchesI was so entertained by this finch thing, that I even took some requests from friends back home, and made wishes for them by proxy when I would encounter the finch girls at a temple. I was running out of things to wish for, anyway, so it worked out.

One day, at a temple in Bago, after I had made finch wishes for health and happiness for all my loved ones, strength to those I know who are going through something, peace in places of conflict, and all the selfless, benevolent things I could think of, and placed the special orders given to me by folks back home, I figured I had earned a selfish one that I could use for something vain.

A bird in the hand.

A bird in the hand.

So, on my last birdie of the day, I cupped him lightly in my hands and wished to drop a couple of dress sizes. Now, I’m normally pretty sorted out about being on the fluffy side, but I’ve been traveling in Asia for almost a year now, and I’m here to tell you, if you aren’t built like Olive Oyl, you will be told several times a day, by well meaning, smiling people, how fat you are. It isn’t malicious, but it isn’t exactly a compliment either, and it kinda gets to a girl after a while. So, there I stood, fervently wishing on a finch that my booty be a little less…well, just less.

Go on, little guy!  Please?

Go on, little guy! Please?

I stretched my arms up and opened my hands to release the finch to the sky…and he didn’t budge. I brought my hands down and had a look at him. He just sat there. I shook my hands a little, to encourage him, but he just looked at me and cocked his head to the side.

Nothing doing.

Nothing doing.

The girl, probably concerned she would have to give me a refund for this one, got up and tapped pretty hard under my hand to boost him into the air.  He just hopped down to the cage and got back inside. He wasn’t going anywhere with that wish.

So much for that. Looks like I’d better hang on to my stretchy pants!