Of Palm Trees, SIM Cards, and Signs

A week and a half ago, my husband and I returned from a week in Aruba. We’d been there five years ago when we were married for six months, and returned this time married for six years. It was, in essence, an anniversary trip, with a healthy component of “we really need to return to the Caribbean after listening to all these Getz-Gilberto albums and playing Wii Sports Resort.” Primarily I blame Stanley Getz’s sax and every version of “Corcovado” — more than one each from both Joao Gilberto and wife Astrud — seductively combined with a “Sun and Sand” Yankee candle and the happy-looking palm trees provided by Wii programmers. Upon arriving, however, we found Aruba’s 20mph trade winds and 90-degree dry heat a bit of a damper on our (now dashed) hope to re-create Sports Resort golfing bliss on the island. Not that all are deterred by such factors: the island has two golf courses, both of which entice plenty of folk of braver stock than we.

Having put the keybosh on the golf, we set our sights to re-exploring the treasures of the island, including its wild and desolate north coast, sufficient in a mystical harsh beauty all its own. Strolling and rediscovering the enchanting main thoroughfare of Oranjestad, the tiny capital. Walking the boardwalk along the ocean at night to the sound of the crashing waves and nearby music. Swimming in the crystal turquoise Caribbean off our sugar-sand beach while we watched the palm trees sway and the pelicans glide an inch above the water right in front of us. Watching every evening the painted light shows that are the sunsets in that place, and the sun’s orb sink beneath the horizon line and turn the water a golden rose pink. Sometimes watching with a pina colada in hand; always with a camera. It was obviously a hard week, but with fortitude we perdured through each day.

This second time there, we found Aruba every bit as enchanting — probably more so — than the first. The one chink was that this time, we had a small daughter enjoying a week with her grandparents at home, and the first time we didn’t. This meant that my husband easily earned his anniversary present just by sitting next to me on the flight both ways. To say nothing of the longsuffering woman on my other side who had to listen to me query with alarm, “What was that noise?” or “Why is the seatbelt light still on?” or “Is that a storm cloud?!” every ten minutes. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with flying, but knowing there was a child at home who could suddenly be without us led to an inordinate amount of contemplation on the wisdom of sitting in a tube 40,000 ft up in the air, while relying solely on the skill and attentiveness of fellow human beings to ensure the flawless functionality of two engines defying gravity for just over four hours. Comforting it was not.

I wouldn’t have had the slightest concern had we been traveling in a car or a train. Yes, flying really is the safest way to travel — until you need to pull up to the curb and find out what that strange noise is, or wait out that freak thunderstorm that just formed right in front of you with annoying lack of regard for the pleasant weather predictions. No, in an airplane one can’t just say, “OK, I’d like to get off now.” The slightest bump of turbulence and God was hearing more from me than he’d heard in the last two months.

Having landed safe and sound, we charged through the airport, passing with gleeful scorn the baggage claim area (we are solely carry-on now, after that time we went to Maui and our luggage didn’t), and headed straight for our rental car. Just before exiting the airport, we passed two sales stands advertising international SIM cards. Vaguely I heard my husband say, “Do you want to buy a SIM card here to call home? It might be faster just to do it at the airport.” “No, no,” I waved him off. “And pay airport prices? We’ll just buy one in Oranjestad; they must have them in grocery stores or something.” I shook my head at such fiscal inattentiveness — of course they would have them in the grocery stores! Or at the very least they would have dial-around local phone cards — that’s what we did in Halifax, after all! Why submit to a gouging at the airport?

Readers, when you are in a foreign country with a child back home and you pass two stands at the airport that say INTERNATIONAL SIM CARDS and your spouse wants to buy one, stop walking. Since we didn’t stop walking, the next day (Saturday, when we were scheduled to call our daughter) found us wandering around Oranjestad in search of the mythical SIM card. Our hotel, excellent in every other way, had offered this deflating remonstrance in its booklet: “There are no local dial-around phone cards on Aruba that you can use free from your room phone. Using your room phone even for local calls is $1/min.” Grocery store? SIM cards? “No, we don’t sell those here.” The mall? No, and most stores are closed Saturday anyway. Friendly outdoor salesman who didn’t mind that we wouldn’t buy a boat trip? “Oh, the post office has them but they’re closed on Saturdays. Mmm, I think there might be a Digicel store down there a couple of blocks; turn right at the Pizza Hut sign, then go down that street and it should be on your right.”

Down a couple of blocks; turned right at the Pizza Hut sign; all the way down the street; no Digicel. Took another right; starting to wither in the midday heat; asked a shopkeeper. “Digicel? You’re past it. Go down that way and make a left, on the corner, another left.” Down the street; wrong turn?; empty-handed. Parched, aggravated, into an internet cafe. “We don’t sell them here; I think you missed the first Digicel. So keep walking all the way down this street and there’s another one on your right.” Starting to feel as frantic as possible in 93 degrees; fantasizing about collapsing half-alive into our air-conditioned suite; walking, walking, ah yes! There it was: one of the rumored Digicels, that place flowing with milk and honey and desperately-needed SIM cards. There was only one problem: a locked door. A sign on the offending door read: “Saturdays and Sundays closed.”

My husband then earned his other anniversary present while I turned in what would have been an award-winning representation of that Icelandic volcano that nobody can pronounce. Then, a thought occurred to my fevered brain. The airport! We already knew they had SIM cards, and surely they would be open on the weekend. Back to the airport it was, buoyed by new hope. While my husband circled the car around the port repeatedly so as not to arouse the ire of security by parking, I ran in, willing to pay any price short of my daughter herself. As it turned out, $26 for 38 minutes to the US, including cost of the card itself. Not too bad. After an initial scare (it turned out my cell phone was not unlocked from AT&T, as I had thought; the unlock code was at home in my sock drawer), I ran back out, waited for my husband to return from one of his circular reconnaissances, grabbed his phone which we knew was unlocked, ran back in, and at last laid hands on our coveted SIM card. Which, it turned out, we didn’t even purchase from Digicel but rather from Setar. We left the airport triumphant, our good humors restored, with the words of the Setar lady standing as a fitting farewell: “Everybody says, oh, we’ll just get them later, then they find out they should have just gotten them at the airport….”

Lessons learned: when on vacation, do things the easy way; and when God gives you a sign, stop walking.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

Gods in High Places

New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington is 6,288 feet high — small compared to many other mountains, but the highest mountain in the Northeastern United States. Quite apart from its height, however, is the fact that its summit hosts some of the most extreme and erratic weather on Earth due to its particular position at the crossroads of several storm tracks. Until it was surpassed recently in Australia, the mountain held the world record for the strongest wind: 231 mph. Other than the primary summit building designed specifically to withstand its winds, all structures are chained to the mountain itself.

Significantly, Mt Washington was once known as Agiocochook: “Home of the Great Spirit.” This is no accident, since humans have been associating mountains with deities since the dawn of religious awareness. Mt Sinai (alternatively Mt Horeb, the name preferred by Deuteronomistic writings) is of course the most famous of these in biblically-based religions. We see major events taking place on other mountains in the Bible too, however, such as Elijah’s famous confrontation with the priests of Baal on Mt Carmel. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is also known in the Bible as Mt Zion. While it is not terribly high, it is the highest point in Jerusalem and affords a commanding view, and was thus the obvious choice for Yahweh’s Temple.

Mt Sinai hosted the most famous theophany in the Bible, during which Moses received the Ten Commandments and (in the words of the Priestly strand of the Pentateuch) the instructions to build the Tabernacle — the portable sanctuary that would serve as the Israelites’ worship center until the construction of the Temple. In addition, the Bible is not bashful about mentioning the many “high places” (Hebrew bamot) scattered throughout the land. Although Deuteronomy in particular condemns these bamot as the worship sites of other Canaanite gods to be avoided by followers of Yahweh, their very names indicate that while they may not all have occupied mountaintops, they certainly occupied elevated land. People of all persuasions have it in common to gravitate to high ground to seek the divine.

In the Canaanite culture that included the northern coastal city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra), ancient and largely intact myths — such as the text scholars call “The Baal Cycle” — record the role of Mt Zaphon, the mountain of the gods. Zaphon means North both in Ugaritic and biblical Hebrew. Here dwelt not only Baal but many others, including his sister the fiery Anat, who braved confrontation with the frightful sea god Yamm, their half-brother, after he had initially defeated Baal in battle; Astarte who like Venus was the Evening Star; Asherah who was initially the consort of El, the High God, the Father God. El (which is simply a word meaning “God” both in Ugaritic and in biblical Hebrew) was the elder God and the head of the divine council, depicted in Ugaritic texts as an old man with long white hair and beard — and a sometimes formidable appetite for banquets, goddesses, and strong drink. In the Bible, Yahweh shared many characteristics of El — though not the propensity for carousing. Notably in Daniel 7, Yahweh appears as the Ancient of Days (Aramaic ‘atiq yomin) with the same flowing white hair and beard.

In ancient Greece, which for various reasons is more familiar to modern Western minds, the mountain of the gods was Mt Olympus, where gods such as Zeus, Hella, Aphrodite, Eros, Aries, Athena, Hermes, and numerous others regularly feasted, fought, and observed the affairs of humans.

My husband’s mother hails from Maui, and several years ago in homage to that family connection — and this had nothing to do with the paradise that is Maui itself, of course — we decided to visit that island on vacation. The central landmark of Maui is the 10,000 ft dormant volcano Haleakala, which in Hawai’ian means “House of the Sun” and which dominates the island. The ancient spiritual connection with this mountain is obvious. One is immediately drawn to it after landing on the island, and the volcanic craters at the summit host innumerable visitors each year — all of whom leave changed for the experience. The goddess of the Hawai’ian volcanoes is Pele (PAY-lay). Is it any surprise that these volcanic mountains are the dwelling-place of a deity?

We also went to Aruba years ago, and at one point stood atop a high cliff overlooking the rough side of the ocean at the north of the island. We were buffeted by constant wind, but returned twice. It was a mystical, beautiful, haunting yet welcoming kind of place. Austere landscape strewn with cacti, rocks, and sand, empty of the many visitors enjoying the calmer southeastern side of the island, it was a place where you felt you could almost hear the divine in the wind. Indeed nearly all you could hear was the wind, and the pounding Atlantic surf nearby, which no swimmer could dare brave. We saw a wild donkey there — not too far away, just a glimpse, wandering amongst the cacti. It might sound surprising — but in that place, it was not at all hard to imagine that wild donkey as some local spirit, connected to that land, mystical or magical in nature, ephemeral. No experience has duplicated that place. And lest I neglect to mention… A Catholic chapel inhabited that place. Our Lady of Alto Vista (High View in Spanish), originally built in the 1800s. Clearly we were not the only ones to have felt an uncanny sense of the divine there.

I could go on. Mt Cadillac the highest point in Acadia National Park, Maine — at the gusty top of which we stood at 10pm one clear August night, staring up at Mars hovering just next to one of the star-studded arms of the Milky Way. That, too, was an experience that has not been duplicated. The low mountains in Scotland, to which mossy Nordic grass and mists cling. But I don’t need to go on. Humans are drawn to high places as places to encounter — or at least to feel, to sense — the divine. What is this awareness we have? A gravitation toward places physically larger than ourselves as a natural way to reach something cosmically larger than ourselves?

In this space age, where we see awe-inspiring photos from Hubble on an almost daily basis, we are keenly aware that Earth’s mountains are not the largest places to which we can go to seek the divine. But for most of us, they are still the closest we can get. And so we go to them, and we keep going.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010