Thursday, May 31, 2012

April Showers Bring Barrels of Wine

By Patricia Winton

I first moved to Rome on a bleak November day almost ten years ago. That first winter, rain pelted the city almost daily. I spent four months in a basement apartment with my only view through a small window near the ceiling where I watched feet splashing rain against the panes.

One night, around two AM, I stepped out of bed and into a pool of water that blanketed the entire floor of the apartment. It turned out that leaves had covered the storm drain in the courtyard, forcing the falling rain to rise in a virtual lake that eventually found its way under doorways and into the building. I spent hours mopping up the water and pouring it down the toilet. The resulting dampness led mold to grow on walls, enflaming my allergies. I coughed and wiped my runny nose until I moved.

When I got to my new digs that April, the sun arrived. I sat outside in a small courtyard to drink my morning coffee, to read, to study Italian, to let the sun wrap me in warmth and dry out my sodden body.

And everywhere I went, I praised the sun. “Isn’t it wonderful to see the sun?” and “What a beautiful, sunny day!” and “At last, the rain has stopped.” Italian people would shake their heads and frown. “Ogni goccia in aprile è un barile,” that is, for every drop of rain in April there will be a barrel of wine at harvest. This was my first introduction to superstitions about the weather here, and superstitions about wine productions abound.

Last year’s grape harvest produced the lowest number of barrels in about sixty years, so people have been paying careful attention to the weather this year. This April saw the highest rainfall in about thirty years, and if the first superstition holds, we should have a bumper crop this year.

Unfortunately, April was also the coldest in about thirty years; the rain and cold have continued into May. Neither situation bodes well for wine production because the extended cold and dampness lead to mildew and disease on the vines, retards blooms, and delays growth of the grapes.

But I’m going to be an optimist. Every drop of rain in April means a barrel of wine. I’m holding on to that.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

In The Eye of The Storm

(Photo: J177839 U.S. Copyright Office)
By Supriya Savkoor

Back when I was expecting my first baby, we had invited relatives over for dinner. It was the middle of the week, a Wednesday, which had started off sunny and fair. By afternoon, the skies had darkened, and before we sat down to eat, there was a tremendous downpour outside.

“You’re having a baby this week,” my aunt smiled, wagging a finger at me.

I froze. How could she say that? I was a good month away from my due date!

“Well, that’s what they used to say in India anyway,” she muttered, taking in my stunned expression. “A superstition. But this superstition always comes true. You'll see.”

The week went by, and I forgot about her prediction. It continued to pour heavily over the next few days, and by Saturday night, I went to bed feeling uneasy. I tossed and turned along with the lightning and thunder, and as soon as it was light outside, I could wait no more.

“Contractions,” my doctor diagnosed when I called her. “Meet me at the hospital right away.”

I barely made it there. My water broke as soon as I arrived, and I spent the next 12 hours listening to the storm rage outside as our newborn made her way into the world. Thankfully, she was healthy, and my exhilaration over this tiny living thing we'd created, was tempered by the mundane chatter among the nurses that day.

“Busy tonight, eh?” one remarked, right after she'd pumped everyone about their weekend plans.

“Because of the rain,” replied another. “Lotta babies tonight.”

“'Cause of the elevated mercury levels in the atmosphere,” my doctor mumbled.

So not just an old wives’ tale then, but an age-old "legend" that happened to be rooted in science. It immediately reminded me of a passing comment my 90-some-year-old, wizened great-grandmother told a 10-year-old me when I'd asked her in which year she was born. 

“I don’t know, but they always told me it was the year of that great flood.”

If you think about it, it’s really no wonder that ancient civilizations such as the ancient Indians in South Asia or the Incans in South America, whom Alli covered yesterday, made such astute observations about the forces of nature. They lived and died by the seasons, made their fortunes (and lost them) based on the success of their crops and harvests, and even wrapped their most important stories in legends about nature’s most powerful forces.

Indra, riding his trademark white elephant,
Airavata. Painting from 18201825,
painter unknown {{PD-1923}}
The Indian rain god I grew up reading about was Indra, the king of all the devas (gods). Indra is also the Hindu god of storms, thunder, rain, and lightning, as well as the god of war. He's the counterpart, you could say, to the Greek god Zeus, the Roman god Jupiter, and the Scandinavian god Thor. Indra is said to have defeated all the other gods to acquire his status as their ruler, including defeating the mighty gods of sun (Surya), oceans (Varuna), fire (Agni), and wind (Vayu). Indra rules the gods from his heavenly abode of Svarga, among the clouds whirling around the mythical Mount Meru. The gods of the elements, including minor storm gods (Indra’s minions), live there, along with all of mankind’s great sages, kings, and warriors who’ve passed on. There, they spend their time watching the apsaras (female cloud spirits) and their husbands, the gandharvas (male nature spirits), dance and sing. No pain, fear, or sadness exists in Svarga, though Indra himself spends much of his time battling the forces of evil, including the asuras (demons), all around the universe, which Indra himself was to said have split up into heaven and earth.

Thus, the belief that morality and the weather went hand in hand prevailed in ancient times. Too much rain or the lack of it altogether was seen as the will of god, the punishment or reward for man’s behavior. So too, with the Vedic law of stars, what we know now as astrology, which came to be associated with morality as well.

Total side note, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, until about 1,000 B.C., Indra was thought to be, in addition to his many other lofty roles, the god of fertility.

Perhaps every time it rains and the maternity wards fill up, it's Indra’s way of showing us how all the forces of nature connect in the great scheme of things. And of humanity's responsibility to serve the greater good and start fresh with each new life. 

Or, well, maybe it's just the extra touch of mercury in the air?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Incan Triad Gods

By Alli Sinclair

Alli is taking a short break this week so we're running her post from November last year about the Incan gods and their relationship with the weather. 

Travelling through the lands where the Incas once lived, it’s hard not to marvel at their craftsmanship when it came to building fortresses and cities out of large blocks of stone. But what has intrigued me most about the Incas is the wonderful myths, legends, and beliefs that powered this captivating civilization.

My last book, Vestige, had a lot of Incan theology in it, and every time I did research, I would come across conflicting versions of gods, descriptions of their appearances, and purpose. Rarely were two descriptions ever the same, and this is to do with the Incas adapting their religion as their world expanded. Once the Spanish arrived, the Incas’ belief that they were the only people in existence had to change, and as a result, their beliefs were challenged. 

The Triad Gods were among the Incas’ most revered and they were worshipped at places like Qoricancha, Cuzco’s main temple. These multi faceted celestial beings had overlapping powers, and even though they were worshipped at the same time, some received more attention than others.

Wiraqocha – The Creator:

Sometimes known as Viracocha, the Incas held this god in the highest esteem. The Incas didn’t make sacrifices or tributes to Wiraqocha, creator of all things, as he had everything he wanted in his possession and needed nothing from men other than their worship. Wiraqocha created the sun and moon, and the people who populated the earth.

When Wiraqocha appeared in human form, he had rays above his head, snakes entwined around his arms, and puma heads projecting from his body. An excellent example of his image is the central figure on the Gate of the Sun at Tiwanaku, in Bolivia.

Inti – The Sun:

The Incas held numerous ceremonies dedicated to Inti, the patron saint of their empire, to ensure the emperor’s welfare as well as encourage bountiful harvests. Every province had land and herds dedicated to the Sun God, and the church had its own storehouses that kept supplies for the priests and priestesses and also for sacrifices.

By 1532, Inti had risen in popularity and by that point, Inti beat all the other gods combined hands down in terms of dedicated worship and monuments. Inca rulers claimed direct genealogical links to the Creator through the Sun, as the Creator fathered Inti, who in turn sired the king.

Inti was represented in a golden statue, depicting a small boy sitting down. Called Punchao (day), this effigy had solar rays projecting from his head and shoulders, ear spools, a chest plate, and royal headband. Serpents and lions also grew from his body. To the Incas, Punchao bridged the gap between humanity and the sun, and when rulers died, their organs were placed in the hollow stomach of the statue, which they then housed in the main temple and brought out onto the patio during the day before returning indoors at night.

Inti-llapa – The Thunder God:

This god of thunder, lightning, rainbows, and every other meteorological phenomena was depicted as a human man who wielded a war club in one hand and a sling in the other. When the people heard thunder, they believed it was Inti-llapa cracking his sling, and the lightning was a glittering flash off his metal garments as he moved through the heavens. Lightning bolts were the sling stones that he cast, and the Milky Way was the heavenly river from which he drew the rainfall. His image, Chucuylla, was kept in a temple called Pukamarka, in the Chinchaysuyu quarter of Cuzco, which also held an image of the Creator God. When the Incas needed rain, they prayed to Inti-llapa.

The belief system of the Incas is wide and varied, and even though they couldn’t see their gods in the flesh, their faith in their gods’ existence helped grow an expansive and fascinating empire across South America. 

Even though the great Incan civilization disappeared many, many years ago, the monuments they left behind and the writings of the Spanish Chronicles help us to understand what they believed in. Supernatural gods with amazing powers were the norm, and even though the Spanish conquerors tried to convert the Incas to Catholicism, they held on to their supernatural gods to help them through their changing world and challenging times.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Songs Of Rain

By Heidi Noroozy

The first night I spent on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea eight years ago, I woke up in the dark to the sound of a lion roaring. Lions in northern Iran? I didn’t think so. After listening to the rain drumming on the roof of the house where I was staying, accompanied by the rat-a-tat of a tree branch against the window, I realized a storm had blown up in the night, and the lion roaring was nothing more than the waves crashing against a nearby rocky beach.
Caspian Sea, near Ramsar, Mazandaran

In a country where 20 percent of the territory is covered by desert, rain is a precious commodity. Even in Gilan and Mazandaran, the fertile northern provinces where much of the nation’s food crops are grown, rain is as necessary as the clear, fresh sea air along the Caspian coast. Iranians call this region Shomal (which means “North”), and Shomalis have long-standing traditions for inducing and predicting much needed precipitation. The Tiregan rain festival, which I wrote about last fall, is still held in Gilan every summer. And in Mazandaran, a popular saying among farmers goes like this: when you hear the song of the tree frog, you know the rain will soon begin.

Earlier this month, I spent a week near a village right smack on the border between Gilan and Mazandaran. We had sunny weather for the most part, with mist draping the verdant mountains that rise steeply from the Caspian’s shore.

And yet evidence of Shomal’s damp climate was apparent everywhere. I saw it in the Chaboksar meydoon (weekly farmer’s market), where the region’s bounty lay spread out on sturdy cloths covering the ground: tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges, garlic, and herbs, to name just some of the produce on display. Driving along the coastal road that hugs the Caspian shore, the breeze wafting through our open windows carried the scent of orange blossoms from orchards that clung to the steep mountain slopes. Behind the house where we spent each night, rice farmers in colorful Shomali garb waded through their watery paddies, tending the crop that forms the foundation of the Persian diet. With so much abundance dependent on the rain, it’s not hard to see why the locals listen for the tree frog’s song.
Tea break in the rice paddies of Gilan

In the Tabarian dialect of Mazandaran, the tree frog is called darvag (as opposed to the much harder to pronounce ghoorbagheh in standard Farsi). The song of this small green frog with the loud voice has inspired not only farmers but poets as well. In the following poem by the Mazandaran-born poet, Nima Youshij, a farmer yearns to hear the song of the darvag as drought destroys his crops:


Oh, messenger of cloudy days!
My land, adjacent to my neighbor’s, has become dry.
My shack is dark with no happiness in it.
The bamboo walls of my house are falling, due to lack of water,
Like the hearts of friends when parted.
Tell me: When will the rain come?

(translation by Hassan H. Farmarz)

Herbs for sale at the meydoon
On the last day of my recent visit to Mazandaran and Gilan provinces, the skies opened and rain drenched the land. Earlier, I’d heard frogs croaking in the fields behind the house but didn’t pay much attention to them at the time. Now, though, I think there may be a measure of truth in the Mazandarani weather superstition, since sunny skies had prevailed all week. Maybe the frogs I’d heard in the fields were raising their voices in songs of rain.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Kyrgyzstan—The View From The Roof Of The World

Woman looking over the Tien Shen Mountains
Our guest this week is Kelly Raftery, who grew up in the Midwest with an abiding passion for the Russian language and culture. A summer studying in Leningrad ignited a life-long passion for the world behind the Iron Curtain. After graduate school, she spent five years in the wild world of Soviet collapse bringing capitalism to the masses as a small business consultant in locales as far-flung as Russia’s “Venice of the North” and the Silk Road’s “Gem of the East.” Kelly has taught Russian language and Soviet Pop Culture to eager undergrads and worked as a freelance interpreter/translator. She currently lives with her family in Colorado’s Front Range.

Close your eyes and picture yourself at the top of the world. Mountains surround the nation’s capital, soaring towards the sky like the buttresses of a medieval cathedral. The Apostle Matthew is rumored to be buried in a monastery on the shore of a high-altitude, sapphire blue lake. Going to the south, you find a city three thousand years old, protected by a sacred mountain named for King Solomon. Do you know where you are yet? Any guesses?

Yurt nestled in the mountains
I will tell you. You are in the Kyrgyz Republic, a small country nestled between China and Russia along the fabled Silk Road. I first visited and fell in love with the Kyrgyz Republic (and not coincidentally, my Kyrgyz husband) well over a decade ago, when the country was undergoing the initial growing pains of its separation from the Soviet Union. Until the collapse, the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic, as it was then known, was officially closed to foreigners, mostly due to its role as a center for military research and development. My middle-aged husband remembers the day the first American arrived in his home country, remembers the first American he ever saw in person, it was that significant an event for his people.

Now he is an American himself and his country has continued to endure sweeping changes—two revolutions, the installation of American and Russian military bases and a profound outmigration that calls to mind the Irish fleeing the Potato Famine. At the end of the Soviet period, the Kyrgyz Republic boasted a population of just over five million people. Today, over one million Kyrgyz live abroad. I am of two minds about this; part of me is deeply saddened, knowing that the reason for this vast departure is both economic and political. The Kyrgyz Republic is a poor country and very few people see any opportunity for advancement at home. The other part of me is wryly amused, because until the Soviets forced them into collective farms and factories, the vast majority of Kyrgyz were nomadic, this most recent immigration just seems to bring their heritage into the 21st century.

Lake Issyk-Kul, where it is rumored that the Apostle Matthew
is buried in an Armenian Monastery on the northern shore.
The Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek has been home to several major settlements dating back to the 6th century, but the city as it exists today was established by Russian Army engineers in the late 1880s. I smiled when I read that in the first official census in 1882, the city had a population of 2,135 people. Six were Kyrgyz. The history of the Kyrgyz is not written in cities or monuments, their culture developed on horseback, in yurts, in clans and tribes. Summers were spent in the mountains with their flocks, winters in the valleys. Their cultural knowledge was not found in books, but in song. Longest epic poem known to man? It’s Kyrgyz. A half a million poetic lines learned by heart and sung at special occasions. My wedding celebration featured part of the poem sung by my brother-in-law and his young son. Afterwards, he came up to me, deeply concerned that I had been frightened by the intensity and content of his retelling of Manas. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that all I heard was a very rhythmic, “Blah, blah, blah! Blah, blah, blah!” You can see a version of Manas being sung here.

I did not know when I married my husband fifteen years ago that I also married into the entire family of Kyrgyz people, for in their tradition when a man takes a bride, she becomes a member of his tribe. While my utterly modern computer programmer husband brushes off being a member of the White Deer tribe, I still remember an occasion when I had been asked to be an interpreter for a high-level Kyrgyz government official at a lecture. I had never met this man, an adviser to their President, and when we were introduced, I was presented not with my professional credentials, but as a Kyrgyz wife. 

Yurt with family at a traditional gathering.
Photo: Tracing Tea/

Towards the end of the afternoon, I was mortified when an eminent scholar in the audience stood up and challenged how I had interpreted part of the talk into English. The President’s man replied that I had, in fact, correctly interpreted what he had meant to say. Afterwards, as we said good-byes, he pulled me close, laid a gentle kiss just beneath my hairline and said, “Thank you, daughter.” It was that day that I realized what it meant to be part of my husband’s tribe, my husband’s people.

Many years have gone by since that gentle encouragement from that man, but I have never forgotten it. Today, I live a dual life, one of my own making – that of an independent and outspoken American woman and one that I was adopted into, that of a Kyrgyz wife. So, while you may see a typical suburban housewife dressed in sweats, ponytail swinging, I know that I am the adopted daughter of a very special people who live on the Roof the World. 

Wild horses in front of the Tien Shien Mountains