/We see the Vodnik/
Saturday I got up at seven and left the flat at eight with Tibor. We drove to Klokocina to pick up first Aneta and Paco (Patrik´s nickname), and then Lupka. We were off to canoe the Hron (second-largest river in Slovakia) for the ceremonial last time before winter makes it impossible.
We drove to Nova Bana, a little town I´d never seen before. (I had discarded it as uninteresting, and then I saw something extremely interesting. But I´ll get to that later.) We stopped at a friend of theirs´house; they told me he had been a goat farmer, but then due to financial strains had had to become a cow farmer, so now he "only" makes regular cheese, and no chevre.
The house was large, with somewhere between a rustic-cabin and a hippy-hangout design (pine panelling, antlers on the wall; a trippy Indian cloth and lots of guitars everywhere). I amused myself talking to the three caged budgies while more and more friends showed up. A lot of them I recognized from the canoing trip in Poland, though there were many new faces as well. Since Tibor was going to be in a boat with Aneta, I was going to be with Lupka, who is a very nice middle-aged woman who I bonded with before.
It was a cold, foggy morning, and I was dreading getting in a boat, since I was freezing on land! The forested hills around the town were lit up wonderfully and had half-changed to Fall oranges; I appreciated the view partly so I wouldn´t think how I was going to wither from hypothermia.
When everyone was finally together, we drove to the starting place. There was a kircma right there, and everyone was delighted to discover it was already open for the morning. Kircma! I had the best tea there. I was so warm and comfortable (still dreading...). After maybe an hour and a half of sitting and talking over drinks, it was finally time to change into our rafting clothes. We changed in a corner of the kircma were they kept all the kegs-- I set my clothes down on a keg, only to discover later someone had used the top as an ashtray (appreciated, anonymous smoker). I went from pants to spandex shorts under regular shorts and tennis shoes to Teva sandals. Oh God. I was clutching myself just in the warm restaurant!
Miraculously, Aneta appeared and gave me a Neoprene set of hers, which had apparently been the plan all along-- she has two sets, so she could spare one. The set was Neoprene overalls and a jacket. Aneta is petite, so everything was very tight on me, but I felt like a seal. Ready to take on the water! Another woman, eying my bare toes, produced Neoprene socks. And so I borrowed my way into warmth.
We finally set out in the water. Lupka and I were one of the very last boats, and we spent most of the time not paddling, just relaxing; but we ended up at the very front of the procession because we decided not to pull over on the bank when everyone else did. Unlike the Poland trip, no rapids here: most of the time the water was very still and quiet. The sun finally broke, and five minutes after we'd started I needed to strip off my top layers down to my t-shirt. I left the black Neoprene pants on, though, and the sun on my legs made me feel luxurious, like a hot cat in a windowsill.
The scenery was gorgeous. Above us were forested hills, half-turned to orange. Nothing fiery about this Fall; most trees here are deciduous, but they succumb very mildly to the changing seasons. No maples to flush red; everything goes a dull orange or, more commonly, just brown instead.
It was a much shorter row than the five-hours-a-day of the Poland trip. It was only three hours or so, and felt even shorter. Lupka and I spent most of the time reclining (we were in the comfy canoe) and talking in a mixture of Slovak and English-- she speaks English very well, since she is the co-founder of a community foundation and worked with Peace Corps volunteers while the program was in Slovakia.
Everything had gone smoothly, and as we went under the last bridge I smugly reflected that there would be no need for the extra clothes I'd brought. Of course, when you get smug, the universe immediately intervenes. As we pulled off to the bank, we went too fast and hit a metal pipe that was sticking out-- and capsized! "No!" I shrieked as I went under. Luckily, my head stayed dry; I just went in up to my chest. I was actually paralyzed from shock. It was so cold. I couldn't believe it. I just knelt there gasping for a few seconds, and said, "Wow, that is cold water!" before I realized I was using the wrong language. Lupka had the cool head (no pun intended) and saved the canoe. I was surprised to later find that I'd kept my paddle; that was a good thing to do, but I'm sure it only happened because my hands clenched up.
Still numb and pretty useless, I half-helped Lupka drag the canoe up the steep hill to lie next to the others. We were in a muddy field of long sedge grass (I was thankful for the Neoprene so my legs didn't get cut up). Up the hill above us was a well-mown soccer field and what looked like a restaurant. The sun had dimmed, though it was only four o'clock, and though I stood in what looked like sunshine, there was no warmth in it.
I never enjoy changing clothes (especially Neoprene! It's like ripping skin off!), but I was soaked through. But where were my clothes? In two different locked cars, and the men with the keys were on the river, far away. Ybi, the woman who had given me the socks, again came to the rescue. She had stayed dry, so she gave me her extra clothes: jeans and two long-sleeved shirts to layer. I changed in the bathroom off of the restaurant. I was so surprised-- everything fit perfectly. They fit better than my own clothes, and looked nicer! Which is especially strange since Ybi and I have completely opposite body types. Hmm.
We lay out our clothes to dry on a nearby wall, and then waited around for everyone to come in off the water. Then it was time for the ceremony! About a hundred and fifty of us (many people I'd never seen before, but they were all canoers--where did they all come from??) went back down the hill to the riverbank. Waiting there was a very strangely-dressed character: the Vodnik. On my very first day in Slovakia, Ruth and Tibor picked me up from the airport, and then we had lunch with stara mama in a restaurant in Bratislava. I'm not sure why, but in the course of our meal Tibor told me about "vodnik," which are Slovak mythological creatures: little green men who live underwater. And they're good-natured, I believe. (After Tibor told me this at the time, I looked over and saw a little figurine of what was obviously a vodnik actually there in the restaurant!)
So, here was a real-live (okay, so maybe not "real") vodnik. He had on green canvas breeches, green wool knee socks, green hiking boots, a green wool sweater, a green scarf, and fluorescent green latex gloves. On his head he had a floppy burlap hat with a sunflower in it and, attached to the hat, a matted wig of green dreadlocks. He had a cape of green netting with leaves caught in it. Slung over his shoulder was a kind of hobo-sack: a stick with a net attached, with sunflowers and candy sticking out of it. On his face, he had bright red lipstick, a thin layer of green facepaint, and these things over his eyes which made them look like they were bulging. He looked like a cross between a toad and a spirit of nature.
Someone had a poster with song lyrics printed on it in large type. He held it while everyone sang the song, which was about how nice it had been to row the river in the summer, but now there could be no more rowing until next spring. (Yes, I understood!) The Vodnik sang along and everyone took pictures. Then the Vodnik was handed a huge wooden key, and he ceremoniously "locked" the river for the winter. He flung down his sack on the ground, and called "Mlade deti!" ("young children!"), who swarmed for the candy inside.
After all the pictures had been taken, the Vodnik disappeared into the nearby woods. The rest of us went back up to the restaurant for gulas (goulash) with bread. A man served the gulas out of an enormous pot. It was blisteringly hot; I dared to try it after it had sat for five minutes, and I burned my tongue for two hours. I went back for more bread (typical me), and stopped and looked at the man serving up the gulas. Ah ha! It was the Vodnik. I'm not sure how he had gotten out of his costume so quickly!
After dinner and hours of talking, I finally got my clothes from the car and changed again. I was sad to say goodbye to Ybi's clothes. Everyone grabbed their sleeping bags and planned on sleeping outside under the stars... Sounds awful to me! It was probably near actual freezing! Luckily, Tibor had prepared an alternative plan for me: Stara mama, with husband in tow (stara mama's second husband, after she divorced when Tibor was still a boy), arrived to take me home.
While we were still in Nova Bana, stara mama pulled over at an unremarkable-looking church. Were we going to a service? I wondered. Just in case, I pulled on my pants over my long-underwear pants. Two priests were walking down the steps. Stara mama asked if they would be so kind as to unlock the church for us-- I was American, and she wanted me to see it. The nice men were more than happy to do so. (And it was good I had dressed myself up, because it turned out there were signs everywhere inside which said in Slovak, "You are in church and not the mall. Dress and behave accordingly!")
What an incredible sight. And of course I hadn't brought my camera... Wow. How to describe this. Words simply can't! Well, it was a very lovely, large church, with beautiful painted detailing and large stain-glass windows. However, what made it remarkable were the fifteen or so large altars set up all around inside. They were made entirely of food. I couldn't believe how much food. It was all autumn's harvest: apples, walnuts, grains, pumpkins, pears, potatoes, turnips, radishes, corn, wheat, and more. Each altar had two pictures with a quote each that were made entirely out of grains. And these were intricate, exquisitely-detailed pictures, with shading and depth of almost photographic quality. The quotes were about food, taken from the Bible (well, one was a Mother Theresa quote). Bordering the pictures, which were lying flat, were apples with a walnut on each one. There were also candles, etc. The rest of the altar was designs of various harvested crops.
The whole floor of the church was coated in food in various designs. I saw one beautiful swirl of four colors made exclusively of apples: red, yellow, green, and brown. These were not the flawless GMO apples you buy in the supermarket, either; they were real apples, fallen off the tree, pitted and irregularly-shaped and natural. All of the food was obviously donated by locals from their own gardens and orchards. There was a line of carefully-positioned walnuts on each pew--and this is a huge church--and, at the front of the place hanging from the ceiling was a banner made of food which said "God Will Feed You" (in Slovak). Am I doing okay at describing this? I guess it doesn't matter if I am, because it's pretty unimaginable--you just have to see it! Apparently the church does this every year for fifty-six days. I'm not sure about the significance of that particular number, but I'm wondering if they replenish all the food? Because it must go bad pretty quickly... I wonder what they do with all of it. It was a glory to see, but a small part of me couldn't help but observe the irony of all these altars, which were reveling in God's gift of feeding the world, and yet the food couldn't be eaten.
We spent an hour or so there, feasting our eyes (pun intended) on the harvest beauty. Then we drove back to Nitra, a glorious sunset all around us. Ruth and I celebrated with Kofola after stara mama left; she had taken back with her Molly and Lilly, the two terrors. "Do you hear that?" "What?" "The silence."
That was my wonderful Saturday, and I planned on posting this on Sunday, but the wi-fi has been dead since then! There's so much to fill in since the weekend, but I'm not sure I have time now to do so...Soon, hopefully!