The setting sun has not yet turned red. The dazzling light renders the simple composition that unfurls before me overexposed: the sky white, the water black, and the frail sails at the intersection transparent. The more I gaze upon the horizon, the hazier it becomes. The sun is a gigantic white hole, her fatal splendor captivating all who beholds her as she falls.
All the boats are already sailing towards the center of oblivion. Some have completed the unification and melted into the bright whirlpool, like a drop of water casting itself into the sea. Others that barely touch the edge, their sails already begin to dissolve into glowing flakes – signs of higher transformation.
So drawn to it, so seized by it, I tried to swim far toward the outer sea, to join the gliding boats. They are so nimble, yet I am so feeble – deprived of the wings, fallen into the sea, and left with my bare limbs. Only that delirious longing still burning. What else am I to do besides to strive for that great nothingness with what weak strokes that the fatigued arms can afford.
Yet the invisible breezes intermittently swoosh by, leaving echos of giggles behind that gently awakens the napping waves. At times, indolent rolls of the waves easily rise above my head to block the view of that heat source entirely. At those moments, I am lost and anxious. And so alternately, I am consumed with yearning and anxiety, until an unusually large roll of waves arrived that forced me to instinctively defend myself by turning my face back toward the seashore with eyes tightly shut.
After it had passed and everything dissipated to stillness again, I wiped the brisk water off my face and rubbed my eyes to allow them to slowly release the defense. The first thing that projects onto my mind was a picture much smaller in scale, in contrast to the expansiveness out there, but more exquisite: from this angle, the sea water touched by the yellowing sun turns emerald green; the wavy curves of sand patterns on the bottom reveal themselves with clarity; the black lines denote the shadow of the land, and the golden patches reflect the brilliance of the west.
The turbulent mind soothed, the exhausted heart comforted, the charred eyes fixated downwards at this magic for what felt like a slowed-down while. After that, I cast a look at the blazing horizon again – now finally a bit wobbly, and thought to myself in this cool clear water: today I will not be able to make it, after all.
It’s been a month since then. Memories are fading. So I’ll group all the rest of the days together and document some highlights.
Remembering one of my Italian friends wearing a fancy suit for the Israeli aerospace conference, who told me that’s just being European, I thought I had to bring my JK uniform – the closest thing I’ve got to formal clothing. But on the way to Hyeres I suddenly realized: I packed my skirt, knee-highs, uniform shoes and even the bow knot, but not the white shirt! I soon turned from being horrified to glad for my consistency and a possible solution of buying a substitute in a local mall. As the plane approached a small rustic airport, round bales of hay which I only saw in paintings* seemed to tell me there are no malls here. At the suggestion of the Hotel reception, I went back to land the next morning and traveled to Grand Var at the outskirt of Toulon. At the first store where I bought a boy’s white shirt, I met a very nice high school girl who was helping in the store. She led me to the next store I was looking for. And when I finished shopping and found no taxi outside the mall – Grand Var is not Grand Canyon after all – the girl came out again and walked me to the exit where the taxi that a customer in her store helped me ordered was. Pimples flourishing on her sunny cheeks and forehead, she would complain about not being good with school and stuff. How nice to behold the face of a high school girl with all these innocent little troubles, thought I – the 114-year-old… …All this while she didn’t really speak English. In the end she typed her farewell message for me on Google Translate and I really didn’t know how to fully express my gratitude.
In the mall I bought three shirts in a row because all of them were somewhat casual. I thought I would leave the difficult question of which one to choose to tomorrow when I would be speaking. In the afternoon, the conference officially started. The organizer Stephane – I still miserably remember I assumed it to be a French version of Stephanie and addressed him by “Ms.” in emails, TWICE!- opened with a welcoming note. To my amazement, he came in beach T-shirt, shorts and flipflops. As if that wasn’t dramatic enough, when he needed a pointer, he grabbed a fallen tree branch taller than even me. At this point I understood that I should be glad that the difficult question was no longer relevant. And without loss of generality, let me just omit that part concerning some certain amount of Euros…
A by-product of that shopping trip was that I had a glimpse of Hyeres center, where a plethora of small-scale palaces lined up the neat boulevards. I have no idea what these eye candies are. But it was definitely nice to have walked around that place.
Before going there, we were warned that “the comfort in the conference center is limited”. But it time and again challenged my bottom line. First there was no air-conditioning in the lecture room. I managed to cool down thanks to the fresh island air. But to the bigger others, life was not easy. Second was of course the lodging. I didn’t complain about the small space which had me bump into the bed corner all the time, or the shower head – or rather the lack thereof from which the water poured down quite bluntly. The jaw-dropping fact was that there was no air-conditioning again… And no WI-FI… These definitely hit new lows. Later Julie told us this place is sort of like kids’ summer camp or military camp. Then it makes sense.
I was well aware of and prepared for sharing the space with another girl. I was confident that academia people have to be nice. This claim stands unshakable. Moreover soon it turned out my roommate was cooler than just nice. Elektra, unlike the introvert me, is an outgoing person with unrestrained bright laughter. Despite striking differences in sociability and bedtime, we both read before sleep and advocated leaving the window wide open for fresh air during the night (thus making ourselves open targets to the mosquito army).
Whenever Elektra fondly called me “μήλο my apple”, my heart stealthily turned into a sweet blossom. By the last night – the last beach time we were going to spend together – I found myself changing into bathing suit without bothering to enter the bathroom anymore. Elektra let loose her wild laugh and teased me. I rushed to explain myself ** by citing the imminent meeting time with others. But it’s undeniable that the somewhat intimate week of sharing personal space and stories, especially of witnessing Elektra’s carefree attitude with regard to changing in front of her roommate, I gradually gave up keeping that awkward distance. read more …
The last day of the conference. Before 11 a.m. the lectures were all over. I wasn’t sure if I paid attention to them well. During the coffee break, I found out everybody I know was to leave the island immediately except for Ernst Jan. We went to see them off at the port in the middle of the day under the blazing hot sun. It was that laid-back kind of atmosphere that made my eyes half closed. All of a sudden, Ougustine came to hug us and went to join the line. Then I noticed the line moving and that signified the departure of my friends. I only managed to locate Elektra who called out to me, and Julie beside her. We hugged and kissed and bid farewell. It was so brief and there wasn’t any chance to say goodbye to anyone else that I hung out with. The next moment the port was empty, leaving me a bit bewildered- a feeling I had long time ago. I always find it hard to digest that friends who created and shared fond memories can just disappear from my life this easily. But I also realize for truly sociable people, it happens all the time and they don’t lament it.
Two hours later, Ernst Jan and I were sitting at Le Pelagos. After the Delft native introduced me to their rowing culture and their enormous civil engineering revolving around dikes, somehow we came to the topic of Israel’s conflict. I looked up at him when he used the word “aggression”, albeit in a careful tone as if that would irritate me. I did find it offensive as Israel never acts unprovoked (okay, minus that 1956 war). So far I had seen myself as a little ambassador of Israel to the world, ready to discuss any complex problems in an educated manner. But before I could make a statement, he said in the gentlest possible way – in a mosquito’s volume – that Farah was a refugee from Lebanon. I gasped and my mind went blank. But that was not all. Her house was destroyed when Israel invaded southern Lebanon. The whole family fled to Egypt where soon afterwards there was unrest and again they had to run away. Eventually they settled down in France. And now Farah lives in Australia where she did her research. For years she could not speak to an Israeli. When she met Israelis she got so angry that she felt like punching them in the face. Only a year ago she gradually overcame this.
As the story unfolded, the images of my limited interaction with Farah came rushing through my mind. I always introduce myself first and foremost as a student from Israel because I never like to present myself as being from China. Like most, Farah verified that this most-definitely Chinese looking person is not Israeli. But why in the world did I add, in the face of a Lebanese, that I like to pretend to be Israeli, only falling short of declaring myself as a self-appointed Israeli ambassador? I somewhat perceived a tip of the iceberg of my silliness when she naturally pursued: “Why do you like to pretend to be Israeli?” There was apparent underlying meaning pointing to her distaste towards Israel. But I chose to ignore her being uncomfortable and clumsily shrugged it off by saying “It’s just fun.” Now that I came to know what kind of bitter personal history she had had, I totally regret my insensitivity. Perhaps later on we got along well: the next day she told me how her nervousness before the presentation could be manifested in her shivering voice; in the afternoons we went to beaches together; during a coffee break I offered my condolence for her stolen bikini; the last morning I think she came to sit right in front of me at breakfast. But all this is perhaps due to me not being Israeli, and/or her being more mature.
I remember that miss universe incidence where the Israeli girl still in the army service cheerfully insisted in taking a selfie together with the Lebanese girl. I sneered at the narrow-mindedness of the Lebanese when it was reported that Miss Lebanon was harshly criticized for that photo. Back then, it again proved for me that only the Arab states perceive us as the enemy, refuse to accept coexistence and perpetrate the century long hostility, whereas we don’t hate anyone and just want to make peace. So when we come across someone from the other side, we lightly go up to them believing we should make friends with them and they should NOT have a problem in making friends with us. But for them, they could not take it lightly. No matter how legitimate a reason Israel has for launching the offensive, what happened on the ground were massive destruction of civilian infrastructure and large-scale displacement of the Lebanese population. Displacement, what a neutral sounding word! But now I suddenly see the substance in this word by relating it to a real person, whom I spoke with and respect. Sometimes our simple-mindedness, innocence, mixed with insensitivity can become stupidity. How can I blame those people for not ready to befriend us?
Ernst Jan asked me to imagine myself being in Farah’s situation. But I could not. I was already saddened and I knew I could not take it to place myself in her shoes. That would be too agonizing. For all these years, I have refused to see the real pictures of any human misfortune, be it the suffering of Gazans, the stories of our fallen soldiers, or the Holocaust. Therefore I love to read history books written by serious scholars. Largely devoid of emotion, I can stand reading numbers, which I forget in a millisecond, or words like displacement, casualty and death. And after reading the books, I believe I know what happened without having to undergo mental depression. But real pictures are indeed there. Sometimes they are just suddenly before your eyes without warning. In the future, I will still hide behind the texts. But this shock lesson indeed significantly influenced me towards giving more weight to the ordinary civilian on the other side when thinking about the conflict. read more …
It turns out that La Tour Fondue only serves for Porquerolles. In order to go to Port Cros, one has to be in Port d’Hyeres first. As expected, this one hour morning cruise was one of salty breeze, gentle sunlight. Leaning on the white rail, I sometimes gazed at the northeastern end of Porquerolles tilting at an unnoticeable pace, wondering what I had missed due to the previous day’s accident; sometimes I stared at the dancing white foams creating a glistening rainbow. There I gradually slipped into drowsiness, and Melville’s beautiful narration emerged in the center of my consciousness:
…lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature… In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space…
I came to Port Cros mainly because of the advertised underwater trail. To reach it from the port, one first needs to hike along the cliff edge of the island for 40 minutes. Even though the cliffs ran fast down to the water, the thick vegetation gave me a very comfortable sense of safety. It was such an enchanting trail because you never completely lose sight of the sea or the impenetrable forest. On the left, there was the sound of waves crushing against the rocks; on the right, there was the synchronized buzzing of cicadas celebrating the heat. I have freedom in my left hand and love in my right hand. Here there was such a variety of trees growing wildly into each other that made the shady trail barely passable. Upon arriving at the destination I was almost sorry.
But at the same moment, I suddenly realized I hadn’t rented any snorkeling equipment yet! That’s of course very typical of me. I ran up where I came from, saying Bonjure to all the people that just started flocking to the beach. Got the mask and tube for almost twice the cost of that on Porquerolles. On my way back to the beach, I chose a different route, steeper and more winding. And obviously I don’t mind getting acquainted with this scenic part of the island by walking it three times.
Now I finally got to what I came here for. Plage de la Palud was a fluffy beach again. The shallow water was muddy. The underwater trail turned out to be quite similar to Crique de la Galare. Yellow carpet, white ginkgo leaves and rolling grass thickets glittering with sunlight rays. There perhaps were a few more kinds of fish. I spent about 40 minutes around the area, looking for the true face of the murderous medusa to no avail. I would conclude that it wasn’t boring, but definitely not very breathtaking. It shouldn’t be surprising though. After all, these three islands are so close to each other. There’s no reason to expect anything different in the underwater landscape. So probably I didn’t miss much by dropping the second snorkeling destination the other day.
In the afterthought, what was really nice about Port Cros was definitely its intimate cliff trails. The island is an official national park (the smallest in France) where trees are specifically protected. I left la Palud and its screaming, laughing kids altogether. As soon as I ran into the bosom of greens, it was all tranquility and solitude again. Along the way, I discovered several more picturesque coves where no bathers visit.
When I got to the east most point, I already felt a bit tired and wanted to turn westward back to the village. But over there I lost the trail. I looked back and saw clearly the trail led me here. But before me was some extremely difficult rock climbing down to the water. And it wasn’t the right direction that Google Maps pointed for me. I stood there for a few minutes, not knowing what to do. Just then, though I was all alone all this time, just when I needed help, two human beings magically appeared before my eyes. They were coming from high up towards me. Then I realized I was supposed to climb up. I gladly greeted the two guys hiking the opposite way and said “Youu saved me!” “Why?” “Here I thought the trail led me to nowhere and I was stuck. Then I saw you guys coming down and now I know where to go.” They laughed and wished me good luck. read more …
Late in the morning around 8 o’clock, I got to Porquerolles Plongee and literally had the store owner open up his shop by ringing him while standing right outside. Since it was already impossible to catch a boat bus to Port Cros at that hour, I decided to rent the snorkeling equipment here and explore eastern Porquerolles.
The first destination of the two is Crique de la Galere. It was a pleasant morning walk out in the country, uneventful compared to that adventurous first hike. The final descending “acces plage” part was a highlight because it’s narrower, shadier and thus more fun to maneuver among the tree branches and spider webs. The slope is much milder compared to that of Gorges du Loup, but therefore also stretches much longer. It’s the same type of rock found at Gorges du Loup, but here it’s covered with soil and trees, whose roots form natural stairs all the way down.
When I arrived at the opening (nobody was there except for many boats at the mouth of the bay), the sea didn’t surprise me with a breathtaking view. And I, unfazed by the sight of a freshly dead seagull, settled my bag beside it. When was the last time I snorkeled? It took me quite a while to relearn my snorkeling devices. When I finally plunged into the water, the underwater world welcomed me with blue and yellow. The shallow water bottom is mostly covered with yellow fluffy carpet and white rolled “gingko leaves”. Only small fish hung around here. Twenty meters away, I spotted my first pray with non-negligible size. It soon joined its friends and swam in a school of ten. They look tasty, by which I mean they are not dressed vividly. This is because the general environ is yellow and they can’t hide from the birds if they are not also yellowish. Yah, blame the vegetation here. So with my Eilat trip in mind, namely the most lushly corlorful coral reefs, clown fish and numerous other types of fish of distinct geometry, Crique de la Galere didn’t impress me too much. But of course, the clear blue water is always a soul-soothing substance.
Exercising the norm of the snorkeling game: fish chasing, before I noticed, I was already at a considerable depth, where the boats parked. The blue here got darker and more enigmatic. I had to constantly come out to the air to make sure I’m close to the boats so as not to be too isolated. This was proven to be a last wise thought after all the bad decisions I would make before it.
So after taking in a full hour view of the ever charming water, I found myself 150 meters away from my bag. Feeling it’s time to rock the road again, I decided to take off my mask and give it a non-stop straight-line swimming back to the shore. Just over 100 strokes, suddenly I was attacked by an acute pain on my forearm and I instantly gave out a cry of terror. (I’m sure my scream was still echoing at the bay today.) I looked to left and saw nothing. Imagination told me it must have been a flesh-eating fish with an entire mouth made out of sharp teeth. In total panic I then raised my left arm and saw a scary region with many small purple dots that looked like poisoned pores. I must have been mad by now. I was so frightened and started fleeing towards the nearest boat clumsily, completely forgetting about the newly-learned fast swimming technique. read more …