A cruise shuttle ship capsized the day I left Greece, and no one seemed surprised.
I walked into the center of camp E1.5 and ran into Masoud. “what the hell you doing here?” I asked him — I saw him get into Skarmagas two days before. “No stamp yet.” He answered. He was wearing the same cloths.
I sat down on a grey wool blanket that reminded me of my army days and skin rashes and joined his buddies for a game of cards. It took me a few rounds to understand the rules. Shawkat asked where I am from and when I said Israel he flexed his arms and said “Netanyahu — strong president! Israel — strong army!”. I was dumbfounded. Internally I chose connection over opinions and asked him if he was a soldier himself. He said yes in the Afghan army. I gave him my wide rim hat and called him Indiana Jones. Everyone laughed and I was surprised they knew who the heck I referred to.
I watched six grown men converse, tease and laugh with each other and felt the fun and connection between them without knowing one word in Kurdish. It was all in their glances, the sarcastic air-kisses, the way their voices went up then down, the dramatic pauses and the universal brotherly brawls.
The sun began to set and a young boy circled the group with his eyes fixed on me and my bag. I motioned to him to sit by me and pulled out the crayons. That got the big boys’ attention and what followed was a draw-a-thon into the dark.
While drawing, as a matter of fact, Abdulhai told me he borrowed $6,000 to make the trip. He will need to pay that back some day. He came here all alone.
One grown man fixed his hair on his phone before sitting before me. Another seemed undecided on where to place his gaze. Another took long time choosing which colors to pull from the crayon box. Black was the most popular choice. Pink the most surprising. The machismo melted before my eyes and the big boys turned to little boys, appreciating being seen, acknowledged in silence. The boy in me felt relieved, stimulated and moved. I told him “Use me up. I’ll tell you when it hurts.”
I only had an hour in the camp before I had to begin my movement towards the airport. I told Masoud I had to leave and we both hugged. And hugged again. And photographed. And hugged again. I saw tears in his eyes and my heart began racing too, my body surging with care and sadness.
I left Masoud my Timberland rolling duffle bag, sleeping bag and tent I used to sleep in South Dakota last summer surrounded by both the majestic Black Hills and spirits of the native Lakota people with whom this Afghan shares the vast sky and the desire to live.
I left the Afghan camp to search for Maher and his family. I wanted to say goodbye. Since I drew his deceased father and burned a hole in their tent rug, they have moved to another tent area in preparation to being relocated, again, to Skaramagas. I didn’t know where their tent moved to. It had been a couple of days since I saw them last, and when a young girl crossed my path I wan’t sure but thought it was his sister Amanda, or maybe “...Trea?” I asked her and she nodded no.
I kept walking. I then heard a call from behind me. The young girl looked enlivened and called back “Trea! Amanda!” and reached for my hand. She led me through to a small four-person tent. Bse their mother was combing Samil’s hair, Amanda and Trea were there too. I felt relieved and happy. Maher soon joined. I learned the one who led me to the tent looked like Trea because she was her cousin.
He invited me in, to eat, to drink, spend time. I felt torn. I wanted to comply, I also needed to make my way back, to shower, eat, get to the airport, fly back home to comfort and company and safety… and all the things I imagined they needed, too. I embraced Maher and the scope of the sadness and grief I have experienced in the camp finally opened.
“Don’t make any promises you can’t fulfill.” — I heard Grover Gauntt’s voice. Grover is a Zen teacher and co-leader of the Zen Peacemakers Native American Bearing Witness retreat with whom I worked last year in the Black Hills. He has developed a bond with the Lakota in South Dakota over sixteen years. He witnessed and reaped the results of unfulfilled promises.
“Even the promise of hope?”, I asked Grover in my mind — “of care?” His large blue eyes and white hair answered their silence.
I said to Maher, “I visited Skaramagas — from outside. I heard from people there they have private lodging bathrooms, even electricity!”
Maher’s dark eyes glistened with hope as Grover’s dimmed. I couldn’t help it. I learned my greatest challenge of this trip and days to follow — the pain and fear of hopelessness and helplessness. What if silence followed Moses’ “Let my people go!”
“I don’t know what I can do, but please reach out for anything, you hear?” I asked Maher.
“Thank you, brother.”
I walked away. In my throat — a lump the size of a four-person tent.
Crossing the nightlife streets of Piraeus, the bustling restaurants, the aromatic meats and beer, flat bread and mezze dishes. The Night Yasmin tree flowers scented the park with sweetness. At the small park across the main bus station, police tackled the Roma (Gypsy) camp.
I sat down at a restaurant by our apartment and ordered souvlaki, fries and a Mythos — the local beer and pride. I looked at my phone and ‘accepted’ all the friend requests from Indiana Jones and the card-game hustlers. A post caught my eye from the “International Space Station” Facebook page that I followed. (“The ISS is a collaboration of 15 nations working together to create a world-class, state-of-the-art orbiting research facility. The Station is much more than a world-class laboratory; it is an international human experiment.”) A live feed interview with Taiwan-born and American-raised astronaut Dr. Kjell Lindgren, who returned from a mission, was about to begin. Le’haim.
My souvlaki arrived as I watched a man in blue NASA jumpsuit taking questions from the ‘comments’ line. “How did the space-grown lettuce taste?”(just like lettuce, and that’s a good thing.) “Do people snore in space?” (no, tissues obscure airways because of gravity. No gravity, no snoring.) “does space have a smell?” (not per se, materials exposed to space radiation have smell, like burnt metal.) I sipped my beer, recalled the smell of damp clothes and sweaty hair and listened on.
“What’s the hardest day to day task while in space?”
DrKL “…it’s not a physical task but a mental one, to stay focused... one of my friends left a little note on our exercise device…’there is nothing more important than what you are doing right now’”.
I chewed on the grilled lamb and typed:
The announcer continued: “Casey here asks what’s it like to see the earth from the station?”
DrKL: “I remember the first view we had of the earth right after we launched has this brilliant white light coming through the window, and I was able to look back to the earth, and see that crescent, of our blue and white planet, was absolutely gorgeous…One particular night we were flying and the aurora was completely confluent, it was like we were flying through a sea of this hazy green fog that was undulating rapidly like a snake with highlights of red a and purple and it gave me goose bump. It is amazing to look down and see massive storms heading towards land, we saw the fires that were ravaging the north west of united states. You really feel for the people being affected by these events , gives you an odd connection with humanity in that respect. because you see the strength and beauty in some of these storms and you know things are pretty bad down on earth.”
I felt moved but grew tired and over-stimulated from the day. I contemplated asking for the check, not expecting to have my question answered. It was, by another’s:
“Having spent time in space and watching our beautiful planet, what simple message do you have for the people of earth as to how we might want to treat each-other?”
DrKL: “It’s a great question and there are two parts for that: the first part- we spend and an inordinate time on the space station doing preventive and corrective maintenance to maintain this vehicle that’s protecting us in the cold void of space. This vehicle, that provides us water, food, protection from radiation and the harsh environments outside. When you look down at the earth, when you look through the Cupola [the ISS’ 7-window observatory] and you see the full face of the earth, you recognize that the Earth is a big beautiful but fragile space ship, hanging in the cold void of space, and it provides us food water, air to breath, protection from radiation and the cold void of space. We do not spend nearly the same amount of time taking care of Spaceship Earth as we do the International Space Station…”
The capsized cruise shuttle I saw earlier that day appeared in mind. The spaceman continued.
“…As crew members, on the ISS, we have to take care of each other, we have to take care of our spaceship, and I think that’s a lesson for those of us on Spaceship Earth.”
“April here asks: what did it feel like trying to walk on Earth after being out there so long?”
“DrKL: It was pretty heavy. Gravity is what we grow up in, its what we know, but once you have been floating for five months or a year gravity is kind of a bummer. I felt heavy, I felt I had to work harder than normal to stand up and walk around in that non gravity environment, but the amazing thing is that the body adapts really quickly, the brain adapts really quickly, so within a couple of weeks I had my balance completely back and within a month I felt like I was almost 100%.”
A week since my return from Greece I have my balance ok and I am nearly adjusted to the new sense of gravity around me, of what I grew up in, what I know. At the airport, I took a Taxi and saw people living their life enjoying unimaginable liberties even in a country divided by values, races and classes. In every park, I passed my mind counted how many tents could fit there. At times sadness would settle, with a disconnect I heard from war veterans returning from war to meet the mundane, known, the gravity of life. I try not to pick at my emotions too much. They are tender. I enjoy the new buds on the trees, making omelets, brewing espresso for my boss.
The spaceman taught me a new word, undulating. It is the waving, movement of things, of thoughts, of feelings, of peoples, of continents, of time, of helplessness, and of inspiration; it is the rippling line of children waiting for chai, of snaking unloading busses and confluent celestial lights of green red and purple tents, yellow stars and grey wool army blankets. It is the tide of knowing and not knowing, mourning and celebration, of plastic straw propellors launched from brown orphan hands and of orbiting aluminum spacecraft growing green moist leaves, of rolling of a cigarette, the offer to a stranger — and of the yearning to live.
[This report was written during a week-long visit to Piraeus, Greece, as part of a members-led Not-Knowing Pilgrimage in Greece, in the spirit of the 3-tenets of the Zen Peacemakers Order : Not Knowing, Bearing Witness and Taking Action.]
Watch the complete interview with astronaut Dr. Kjell Lindgren: