As 2015 draws to an end I am looking back on an extraordinary year indeed.
I will reflect on that in more detail in my next post but one of the more intense experiences of the past year surely must be my three and a half week on the Greek Island of Kos, assisting fellow humans in search of a future free from repression. Repression in the widest possible term, physical, emotional, political and economical.
I wrote a handful of Facebook posts while on the island and republish them here. I believe how we uphold our values in the face of the plight of our fellow 'earthizens' will define us as humans. These times are our Where-were-you-and-what-did-you-do-moment.
We are all on the move. And whether we realize it or not, therein lies our strength.
We're Not Here Anymore and, clearly, Not Quite There Yet.
My first post was on October 5:
Impressions of Kos (1)
A few tourists, high astride their iron
horses, look at me like they own the place, or at least the ground
directly underneath their wheels. Some though, clearly have larger
ambitions. I even spot a few General Custers.
As they cycle past
the dense cluster of tents lining the narrow section between the bicycle
lane and the beach in the centre of town, I see the disapproval in
their eyes. And I see the fear.
try to put myself in their shoes, or shall I say in their saddle? They
have become unwilling participants in a reality show they no longer can
switch off. Didn’t see this one coming now, didn’t you?
At least they are dressed. One of the most bizarre sights of the past
week was a voluptuous, bikini clad woman, cycling past the tents housing
mostly young men from South Asia who had made the perilous crossing
from the Bodrum side only days earlier. Paradise anyone?
convince the people surrounding us to form a line, instead of crowding
us in and blocking the bicycle lane in the process, I offer a smile, a
“Good Morning how are you?” sometimes followed by a gentle push. I see
familiar faces. The crippled boy from Afghanistan greets me with an
outstretched hand. The frail Pakistani man with the glasses; two days
ago I warmed his hands, minutes after he stepped ashore, after an
arduous 5 hour crossing in a rubber dingy I would barely dare to use in a
swimming pool. Five hours paddling, soaked to the bone and in shock. He
is fine now, he assures me. And yes, he’d like a banana.
the waterfront, beneath the imposing Fortress walls, I spot the group of
Syrians we welcomed a few days earlier. How could I not? The young
woman’s brightly colored hijab acts as an unmissable beacon. She made
the crossing together with her husband, his brother and a friend. Young
and bright, full of hope for a future no more certain than the weather.
We hug, we chat. They will be leaving soon on a boat to Athens. Beyond
that they don’t want to think.
Life’s uncertainties take on a whole different dimension here.
I continue for the far corner of the Fortress to check on a gentle
Iranian man. I have a soft spot for him, and for Iran for that matter.
Halfway down the thick, impenetrable wall, built ages ago –no doubt to
keep someone out - a sign, hastily stenciled on what looks like some
kind of electrical box, reads: “We are all immigrants. Our homeland is
It’s about time we realize.
My second post was on October 11:
Impressions of Kos (2)
The Petzl on my head turns a triangle
of night into day. I rotate like a human lighthouse and scan the ground
for debris. Anything really that has the potential to ruin a good
night’s sleep. No rocks, check. No slope, check. High ground, sort of.
I have a hard time remembering the last time I went camping. Pre-dome
period anyone? The pang of anxiety caused by my lack of experience
dissolves the moment I unroll the package. Together with Steph, my
fellow camper, I can do this. Two
foldable poles bend the fabric into shape and in a matter of minutes the
tent announces its presence in the park.
A home away from home.
Then on October 21:
Kos is a quintessential holiday island. A mild, Mediterranean climate,
historical architecture, a picture perfect port lined with ships of all
shapes and sizes.
Dive boats advertise the wonders of the
underwater world, party boats entice with cruises to Bodrum across the
narrow straits separating Kos from Turkey. Plenty to do for a restless
The day had started like a dream. The sun a painter who
lets loose her accumulated inspiration on the first canvas she finds.
Broad pink and purple brushstrokes colored the awakening sky and
silhouetted a group of people paddling across the tranquil waters.
A shot I would use on a postcard.
The tents pitched I tell the boys to enter. There are five of them,
from Afghanistan. Aged between 13 and 17. Unaccompanied minors as far as
the fog of the moment allows us to establish. If that really is the
case the chance they end up in the jail is high. By law these kids have
to be with a police officer at all times. Locked up at the station is by
far the easiest “solution”. Having seen the medieval dungeon that
passes for a jail here doesn’t help establish peace of mind.
have notified the UNHCR people. Maybe they can prevent this travesty of
law. To say it mildly, I’m not a fan of the paralyzing bureaucracy and
power politics of the UN. But right now, there’s nothing else we can do
for these boys. We hand out sleeping bags, mattresses, food. And wait
outside their tents.
A home away from home.
A bit at least, I hope.
Oh, and the group of people at sunrise? 6 Iranian men. Crossing from
Bodrum in a tiny rubber dingy. After the engine failed they paddled for 3
hours across treacherous waters. A darkness that has already swallowed
Not quite the picture postcard I imagined.
The third post I made on October 18:
Our rental pulls up on the beach next to The Lighthouse. A rather
pretentious name for the oversized bulb I see flickering atop three iron
poles that sprout from a concrete block perched on the water’s edge.
Blink – blink – blink – pause. Blink – blink – blink – pause.
The beach, too, fails to conform to the quintessential image the word
conjures in my mind’s eye. The soothing symphony of waves caressing palm
fringed powdery sand replaced by the crackling staccato of black and grey pebbles unable to escape the suffocating pull of the retreating water.
I close my eyes and for a moment feel I’m listening to a giant deepfryer being fed at regular intervals.
It’s a moonless night and my eyes, hopelessly inadequate, scan the void
in vain. I know someone’s out there. Just like the previous night. And
the one before that. The wind shows no mercy either and continues
crying. If I am cold imagine what it would be like wet and exhausted.
Scared to death. Unable to cancel due to bad weather because the
smugglers refund policy is, well, non-existent.
Imagine that you
have scraped together all your family’s money, sold your house. And your
bridges; someone has already burned them for you.
I simply can’t.
At first light I scout the horizon. You know it’s a boat when you see
one, a tiny speck with other, even tinier, specks on top, disappearing,
then reappearing and disappearing again.
I scold myself for losing
sight only to rejoice as we reacquaint. I can make out the orange of the
adult life vests now. Is that the yellow of a child’s vest? I have
often seen them on the beach. Read the warning printed on the back: WILL
NOT PROTECT AGAINST DROWNING. NOT FOR USE IN BOATING.
What a fucked up world we live in.
When the boat finally lands it’s almost impossible to get everybody to
disembark orderly. The team tries to carry crying babies first. Help the
disabled, the elderly, women. But in all reality, it’s chaotic. Some
refugees jump, others stumble. A man collapses on the sand praying.
Another tries frantically to rip through the six layers of taped plastic
foil protecting his phone, to let loved ones know he made it.
I turn around and see a father removing his young boy’s vest. Then they hug. In that instant time ceases to exist.
They are not the only ones crying.
Before we head back to the apartment I take a last look at The
Lighthouse. It no longer looks pretentious. The beach no longer second
And I no longer see refugees and volunteers, only beacons of humanity.
Impressions from Kos (4)
Linear time is a concept of the
rational mind. The notion that our history is a straight line towards
ever greater levels of sophistication and refinement is at best just
that. At its worst, the myth that tells you to work hard and everything
is possible is nothing but a giant pacifier. Suck on it, work hard, keep
quiet and don’t disturb the dream. The American Dream, The European
Dream. A Fool’s Dream.
Progress depends on your point of view. And if we start from different positions the race is skewed right from the beginning.
I am nearing the end of my work here on Kos. Three and a half weeks. Or
was it three and a half days, three and a half hours, three and a half
years? It’s hard to distinguish one day from the other. Time is
cyclical. What will happen tomorrow has already happened yesterday.
What changes is how we react. Our action determines whether the spiral
we’re in is moving upwards or downwards.
Pinnacle or abyss, we choose.
What do I tell a father who has just made the perilous crossing from
Bodrum with his 12 year old son, fleeing “I don’t really want to know
but need to understand what” and wants to go to Germany?
What do I
tell a young pregnant woman, four months she says, practically doubling
up with abdominal pain yet determined to leave on the evening ferry for
What do I tell a bright young man who wishes to further his
studies somewhere safe, where the bombs don’t fall, and build a future
you and I take for granted?
What do I tell about the road ahead?
Hungary closed its Southern borders. Ostensibly to protect Europe and
its Christian values. Shutting out the hungry, the thirsty, the needy,
the persecuted. Fine values indeed. Oh, the irony. With a mindset like
that there isn’t anything worth protecting.
Nothing. Europe is dead.
Time is cyclical. What will happen tomorrow has already happened yesterday.
In the book I recently wrote, a little baby girl is rescued from her
drowning mother’s arms by a Dutch sailor who later adopts her. Based on a
true story - Vietnamese boat refugees anyone? – I fictionalized the
Here’s part of the story, as told by the baby girl, a young woman now, to the book’s main protagonist:
“…All around people are drowning, screaming, disappearing. The scent of
fear is palpable. Cong co em, cong co em. A woman, a young Vietnamese
woman, eyes like eggs, round, filled with fear, hope, determination. My
baby, my baby, she shouts. Help me, my baby, help me. Dad looks at her,
she barely manages to stay afloat, she holds a little girl, pushes her
upwards, pushes her towards my dad. He hangs over the railing of the
lifeboat and hooks his arm around me. Cam on nhieu, the woman whispers.
Thank you. Then a wave rolls in and swallows her.”
The woman, her name is Max, continues:
“My dad wouldn’t let go of me. Back on board. He kept holding me,
rocking me, saying I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. Finally the doctor took
dad and me into the ship’s infirmary for a checkup. I had no papers, no
identification, no name. I was wrapped in a large sheet, turned out to
be a tablecloth. In one corner there was a name, a logo really. A crown,
and written underneath in capital letters MAXIM’S. My dad later found
out that this was the logo of a nightclub and restaurant in downtown
Saigon. For him it was a sign, there was no alternative. My name would
be Maxim. I was his little princess.”
A few days ago - or was it a
few hours, perhaps a few years? - I carried a little baby girl ashore.
Her mother, eyes like eggs, filled with fear, hope, determination, had
given her to me when the little rubber dingy that had carried her across
landed here on Kos.
I held the little princess close as I waded knee deep through the water. At that moment I understood all that mattered.
Pinnacle or abyss, we choose.
The final post a few days later on October 25:
Back home. This is what I wrote just after leaving Kos.
I am having an out of body experience.
A few months ago, in Peru, in the jungle, I had a similar journey.
While my body was firmly on the ground in the Maloka, the large,
circular space used by Shipibo shamans for sacred Ayahuasca ceremonies,
my mind was exploring higher realms.
This time though it is a little different; my body soars 30,000 feet in
the air but my mind is firmly planted on the ground, on the Greek
island of Kos to be more precise.
My mind is on Kos.
The flight attendant demonstrates the use of the life jacket and I have to suppress the urge to rush over and rip it off.
My mind is on Kos.
A passenger on my flight wears only socks and I wonder what size of shoes to give him.
Mind on Kos.
The food trolley passes and I hear someone shouting: “ONE LINE, ONE LINE!”
In less than four comfortable hours I cover a refugee’s journey of
days, if not weeks. Less than four hours, and I am a world away.
have been hugged and kissed, prayed for and sung to more times than I
can remember. People I only knew for three days parted as lifelong
Now I am the one who is leaving, and it feels like I’m abandoning those in need.
Four weeks ago, inspired and fortified by Ayahuasca, I decided to come
to Kos. To round out the circle, to return some of the kindness bestowed
upon me by total strangers somewhere along this road I am traveling,
this road called life.
Do unto others…
There is plenty of opportunity in today’s world.