“You are the protagonist of your beloved fairy tales and stories and myths and poems. You are all the heroes you strive to emulate. You are all the lives you collect. Not only are you, but you always have been. You are the forever reappearing Eternal Ragpicker of lives.”
(From the essay The Eternal Ragpicker)
When I started traveling around the world, it was just me.
But gradually, I began to discern in me the lives of other figures. They seemed to assert the substance of their Being through me. Or was is it rather me reconnecting with and then becoming them, even if only for a while?
During the different phases of my continuous six-and-a-half-year journey around the world, I identified with these figures, one after another in succession. Yet, in some strange manner, I was also all of them simultaneously. Our life unrolls in Time, but there is a timeless unity underneath the main themes of our life that is not immediately perceptible. It is only later, when we examine in more depth the various interconnections between our life’s events, that we recognize the binding patterns.
Through weird coincidences, events, and observations that had converged to point in a particular direction, out of the vast Jungian collective unconscious, some archetypal figures seemed to capture my being as if they wanted to acquire an objective existence through my own experiences. Some of these figures appeared abruptly, at the most unexpected moments; others grew slowly in me. Suddenly, it was not just me traveling, but also these other, eternal figures. And because according to Jung’s theory all archetypes have a dual nature — they reside both in the psyche and in the world at large — I often felt as if I were “the protagonist of my beloved fairy tales and stories and myths and poems …” and that I became the lives I “collected.” The most fascinating of all was that I neither searched for nor ever strove to incorporate these figures in my life. They just appeared. Out of nowhere. And stayed.
Odysseus, the archetypal hero of Western civilization, was the first figure to appear. I had read the Odyssey, one of the two defining epics of the Ancient Greek world, in an illustrated short version when I was six or seven and again as a young adult in high school. But of course, Odysseus’s adventures have been following me all my life, through the many mentions of the hero’s trials in literature and the oft-referenced allegories in the Greek media, such as the enchanting Sirens, Penelope’s suitors, and Scylla and Charybdis. I thought I had left my childhood hero well behind when, on the Ides of March, 2005, I landed in New York to begin my journey around the US. But when three days later I first met Jane, my future soul mate, and she mentioned having studied at Cornell University in Ithaca, I remembered that the Americans had named one of their towns after Odysseus’s home island. Suddenly, something within me stirred again.
When we later sat down to plan my US travel route, Jane suggested that, as the “Odysseus I now was,” I should symbolically finish my journey in Ithaca, NY. We then agreed to meet there, and before we knew it, she had assumed the waiting-in-Ithaca Penelope role (Odysseus’s wife), and I that of the soon-to-be wandering Odysseus. What neither of us knew at the time was that more elements of the myth would gradually unravel.
During this first leg of what would eventually become a multiyear journey, I went through some of the most famous of Odysseus’s trials. Of course, Odysseus’s adventures are not to be taken literally, nor only as representing physical struggles, but also as symbols of psychological and spiritual transformation. Without going into personal details, many of the multidimensional struggles of Odysseus soon became my own. The Sirens represent the enchantments of life that continually lured me away from my main path and which I had to resist. Calypso was the reappearing temptation to return to my old sedentary life and comforts by finding a beautiful place in the US to settle down. Carefully navigating through the many challenges of life on the move was like sailing repeatedly through Scylla and Charybdis. And never forgetting my fateful meeting with Jane-Penelope, sending her cards and keeping her in mind, meant having an end date to finish the US journey in the physical Ithaca, which now seemed like a faint reflection of the eternal one. When I finally arrived in Ithaca half a year later and discovered that in the town also resided my living spiritual father, Brother David Steindl-Rast (something I did not know beforehand), so that in fact I, like Odysseus, ended up reconnecting with both Penelope and Laertes (Odysseus’s father), my identification with the eternal archetype was complete.
My journey however, did not end in Ithaca. Just as Kazantzakis’s Odysseus (in the gargantuan epic The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel) became bored of quiet family life in Ithaca and started to travel again, I likewise continued on my way around the world. Kazantzakis’s Odysseus travels to the East and meets with an incarnation of the Buddha, and even reaches Antarctica. I would also soon be reaching the remotest corners of the planet and delving deeper into the Asian world and Eastern thought. It may have seemed that my “becoming Odysseus” had ended in Ithaca, but actually his spirit was to stay with me throughout the journey and beyond. Odysseus is the archetypal hero who forever reappears to renew and revitalize my life.
But identifying with or being captured by the heroic spirit for too long may be unhealthy for the soul. A hard landing awaited me in Latin America! There, a new figure seemed to persistently confront me until I finally had to acknowledge his presence and even become him: Don Quixote.
In 2005, the Spanish-speaking world celebrated the 400-year anniversary of Miguel de Cervantes’s classic novel, Don Quixote. Wherever I went, I would encounter exhibitions, art displays, and literary gatherings in commemoration of this special event. The classic images of Don Quixote’s foolish adventures started to come to mind. Then, one day, while I was climbing the active volcano Pacaya in Guatemala with a group of twenty-year-olds, midway to the top of the volcano, I saw horse-taxis assisting the weak and faint-of-heart to reach the crater and it became quite clear: I was not a hero, nor an explorer, but a fool!
Suddenly it all fell into place: These modern adventures did not pertain to Odysseus’s heroic feats. For there are no unknown lands left to be discovered or explored on this planet. Everything has been mapped by satellites, photographed, digitalized, printed in books. There are no great challenges to be met, heroic feats to be achieved, journeys to unknown lands to be traveled. All has been done. The twenty-year-old backpacker who strived to reach the top of the volcano, the middle-aged thrill-seeker who liked to take the sailboat to the open sea, the old couple who rode horses through the wild mountains, the Greek guy with the red suitcase traveling around the world were, in the end, different versions of but one single character — Don Quixote!
Around me I started to see all these modern travelers trying desperately to live in an epoch that is no more, striving to heroically battle giants that turn out to be windmills and conquer castles that turn out to be country inns. All the adventures of our day, for which we often buy a ticket, are nothing more than laughable substitutes of the images we firmly hold in our primal psyche.
When, later on in the journey, I would wage my humorous battles with taxi drivers or street vendors, or feel a sense of accomplishment at having climbed a small hill or trekked in the jungle, Don Quixote would capture my being, leaving a big grin on my face. All seriousness had forever vanished from my endeavor. I could now freely laugh at myself.
When I crossed Magellan’s Strait in Tierra del Fuego — the southernmost inhabited region of the planet — it dawned on me that I was in effect following a westward route towards Asia, like Magellan. I started reading everything I could find to learn more about the man and his grand voyage. I realized that, like him, I would soon be traversing, for the first time in my life, the Pacific Ocean. The more I studied Magellan’s extraordinary journey, the more I admired his courage, determination, and valor. At the same time though, I recognized a tragic element in his life. Though I would have liked to identify with his heroic aspects, his tragic fate did not permit me at first to do so.
Unlike what most people think, Magellan did not complete the first circumnavigation of the Earth. In trying to reciprocate the friendship and hospitality bestowed upon him by the recently Christianized king of the island of Cebu in the Philippines, Magellan went to confront this friend’s rival, Lapu-Lapu, on nearby Mactan island. He thought he could easily overcome him and foolishly did not bring enough soldiers with him. He lost the battle and his life only a few weeks after he survived the long journey through the Pacific. The first circumnavigation of the globe would be completed by Juan Sebastian Elcano and his small remaining crew on the Victoria, the last surviving ship of the expedition, in September 1522. It is Elcano who should be credited with this feat — not Magellan.
Although I tried to believe that such a tragic end could never be my own, a year or so later, I realized that one cannot pick and choose elements from the archetypal figures that consume one’s being. Near Mactan island, where Magellan met his death, I had a huge physical and mental collapse due to my cumulative fatigue after almost three years of non-stop traveling, and so I had to rest for two months in nearby Indonesia. But this was not all. While in Indonesia, I also experienced an even bigger psychological collapse when I realized that my aim “to see the world” was doomed to fail. The catalyst was the simple calculation I had made that led me to conclude that I needed many lifetimes to explore Indonesia alone,because the country’s 18,000 islands are in effect an Infinite Microcosm — a seemingly finite entity that is practically infinite with respect to our short life. Likewise, I now understood that the whole world is an infinite entity that no human could ever explore in its entirety. Just like Magellan centuries ago on the same spot, I experienced this realization as a psychological death. I felt as if Magellan’s spirit and tragic fate had completely consumed me. Just when I thought that Don Quixote represented the opposite of triumphant Odysseus, I discovered that within all life-journeys lurks an unavoidable tragedy. It is this element — not quixotic humorousness — that lies at the opposite end of the spectrum of all heroic feats. When, two years later, while I was still traveling, my brother was murdered in front of his home, I would discover that there is an even bigger tragedy than losing your own life: losing one of your beloved. Magellan’s and my tragedies had now merged into one. I had to reluctantly accept that tragedy is an indispensable part of human life.
I first learned of Zhang Qian while planning my Central Asia itinerary and was instantly fascinated by his extraordinary life and travels. Here was someone from the East who was not only a diplomat, an envoy, a traveler, and a keen observer of foreign cultures (like Herodotus three centuries earlier) but also had singlehandedly achieved much more than any other explorer up to that moment in history. Qian’s missions in the second century BCE opened what would later be called the Silk Road trade routes between East and West, brought China in touch with the rest of the world, and in effect created the first lines of communication, facilitating cultural exchanges between the peoples of Asia. Today, Qian is venerated in China, where his status is similar to that of Christopher Columbus in the West.
Of all his achievements, the one that touched me the most was the way Qian meticulously documented the cultures he encountered. His description of the last vestiges of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom in Daxia, the Easternmost region of the Hellenistic world, moved me to the core. Here was the first indirect encounter of the two most important ancient civilizations, the Greek and the Chinese. The fascinating records Qian penned and then presented to Emperor Wu were preserved a century later by the historian Sima Qian (no relation) in his work Records of the Great Historian. This work influenced many subsequent generations of educated Chinese. Unwittingly, Qian became a great educator. For the first time ever, traveling seemed to open the doors to an elite academy with an all-encompassing curriculum. It was Qian who helped me crystallize my budding idea that travel is truly the “ultimate university.” And that it is through the wisdom of travel that the peoples of the world come to better understand one another. In a sense, like Qian, I too saw with fresh eyes many world cultures that I previously had not known, and I too had to delve deep into the soul of Asia and the world at large in order to learn as much as I could about the cultural wealth of non-European civilizations. I also realized that if I were to emulate this exemplary figure, one day I would also have to make the gleanings of my travels known to the world.
Zhang Qian represents, in effect, the archetypal explorer who does not conquer, does not aim to proselytize, but strives to understand and relate to the Other — which has always been my own ideal stance towards interacting with the world.
As I was returning to Europe after over five years of travels, I planned to explore my home continent again with the eyes of the newly minted world-traveler. I began by reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s classic book The Memoirs of Hadrian, a fictional literary biography based on historical events, written in Hadrian’s voice and even with an attempt to emulate the style of Latin authors of the time.
And what a life Hadrian lived! He was the most well-traveled ruler in the history of mankind, if not also the most well-traveled Roman. He spent more than half of his twenty-one-year-long reign traveling along the whole breadth and width of the Roman Empire. He first traveled to France, Germany, and Britain, where he also built his famous wall in Scotland. He then went to Spain, northern Africa, and on to Crete, Syria, and Asia Minor. Being obsessed with Greek culture, he more than once traveled extensively around Greece and commissioned most of the still surviving monuments at the foothill of the Acropolis — a library, a forum, temples, theaters. As the greatest Roman Hellenophile ever, he actually constructed or encouraged other locals such as Herod Atticus to construct these major works in an effort to revive the by-then lost glory of Athens.
Here was not only a ruler but also a man of letters, an intellectual, probably even the first world-traveler — since the Roman world was then the “whole world.” I came to realize that Hadrian was the best example of the wise ruler who wanted to know as much as possible about the peoples he ruled, and who strove to expand their education and well-being, while simultaneously building long-lasting monuments of beauty and culture. He was the perfect combination of a man of Learning and of Action — my ultimate ideal.
Of course, Yourcenar’s Hadrian is an idealized version of the real historical figure. Yet he along with the other four of the Five Good Emperors (as later historians would address them) of this golden era of the Roman Empire have long been stripped of their historicity and remain in the West’s consciousness as the model of what a wise ruler ought to be. It is for this reason (and because he visited the area) that many Greeks in the Peloponnese were named after him in later centuries. One of them even became a saint of the Orthodox Church, Saint Hadrian, and a village would be named after him. It is near this village, in the countryside outside the town of Nafplio, that Jane and I ended up living after I completed my journey. Therefore, through a mysterious convergence of circumstance, his name would be uttered by me on a near daily basis for the next eight years! My identification with Hadrian, which began just as I was setting foot in Europe, had transformed into a true blood bond and was sealed forever.
Nicholas the Greek from Nafplio
The conscious Doll is pushed a hundred ways
And feels the push but not the hands that drive.
For none can see the masked ironic troupe
To whom our figure-selves are marionettes…
(Sri Aurobindo — Savitri, Book II: The Book of the Traveller of the Worlds)
Still, there was to be a postscript to the end of the journey that I could never have anticipated. There would be a last mysterious figure who, although not in any sense archetypal, would place my journey and my life among the grander scheme of things. Most importantly, although this figure appeared for the first time during my Magellan phase, it would now reappear in a most potent manner to singlehandedly remold the whole narrative of my journey.
When I was reading about Magellan’s journey, I was shocked to learn that of the original 270 crew members who had departed from Seville in 1519 aboard five ships, only eighteen survived in the end. In 1522, these eighteen survivors landed in Spain on the last remaining ship, which was presciently named Victoria, having completed the first circumnavigation of the globe.
When I first read the list of names of these fortunate survivors, I noticed that fourteen out of the eighteen were either Portuguese or Spanish, two were Italians, one was German, and one was … a simple Greek mariner named Nicholas (the long-form of my name Nicos)! I couldn’t believe my eyes. Magellan himself did not complete the around-the-world-journey, but there was a single Greek figure whose name stood out amidst the Latinos who had managed to do it! I spent some time trying to find out more about him, but the only thing I could learn was that he was from Napoli di Romania. I assumed that he was a Greek living in the Italian town of Naples before he joined the expedition, and I forgot about him.
A month or two after we settled outside of Nafplio and re-entered “normal life,” I fell upon a café in town called “Napoli di Romania.” I inquired as to why the café was named thus, and the owner told me that this was the name of Nafplio during its Venetian rule centuries ago. Romania was how Greece was called then — the town was basically called the “Greek Naples.” I knew I had seen this name before but couldn’t remember where. But as soon as I returned home, I suddenly remembered, ran to my computer and verified the most astonishing thing of my life: Nicholas the Greek, one of the eighteen survivors aboard the Victoria, my Greek namesake who completed the first circumnavigation of the globe, was not from Naples but from Nafplio, the same town near which I ended up living after my journey! Immediately, further connections started appearing.
We know that many of Magellan’s crew died during the almost four-month journey in the Pacific due to scurvy, a disease caused by the lack of vitamin C — although that cause was unknown at the time. We also know that those who did survive must have unknowingly had access to some source of vitamin C. It is believed that Magellan had a jar of quince with him, and it is natural to assume that the other survivors had similar stores.
As I sat on my balcony surrounded by the sea of citrus trees of the greater Nafplio area, I knew that Nicholas the Greek, having lived in this area of citrus trees, could not get enough vitamin C. Just like me, who was born in Morfou, the citrus-producing region of Cyprus, he needed his daily dose of oranges and lemons, and must have gone to great lengths to take something containing the vitamin aboard the Victoria (I like to think it was dried oranges). The two Greeks, who both departed from Spain to travel around the world, were finally meeting in Nafplio after 500 years to celebrate their journey!
What I thought was my unique journey, would now be transposed into other, more universal coordinates, and would acquire a new meaning that transcended my personal life. This personal self that had supposedly conceived of and then completed a round-the-world journey, this self with bodily boundaries residing in present time and space, would fray at the edges, lose its borders, and suddenly merge with a mysterious new universe. A universe and a Power that, as Sri Aurobindo says, moves us like dolls while making us believe that it is we who move ourselves. It now seemed to me that my final destination from the very beginning was Nafplio, and that my journey was a modern simulation of that original journey of that older Greek. Still though, it was also the journey of Odysseus, and the foolish adventures of Don Quixote, and the tragic heroism of Magellan, and the ultimate university of Zhang Qian, and the marriage of learning and action of Hadrian the world-citizen.
I could now clearly see myself for the doll I was (and remain): I did not travel where I wanted. The journey “traveled me” where it wanted.
In the end, I did not own my journey. The journey owned me.
And all the archetypal characters that had appeared in it.