Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On donkeys, or not

Does it really matter whether it was a donkey or a horse, or even a mule, upon whose back the very pregnant Mary rode to Bethlehem, and who was then a spectator at the manger? It matters to me.
Twice in my life I have ridden donkeys and, strangely enough, I remember both instances, though not for their ease of travel or comfort. Au contraire. The first time was on the volcanic island of Santorini, known for being volcanic and for its rare and delicious white eggplants, which are so sweet they can be eaten raw. (I am very fond of eggplants – see previous posts re blue food for further information – but have yet to eat one raw.) If you arrive at Santorini by boat, and you will because there is no other way to arrive, it is a long and circuitous climb from the harbor up to the village at the crater’s rim. For reasons that presumably have to do with an ancient Santorinian’s wicked sense of humor, tourists are encouraged, even compelled, to make that ascent – the “traditional way” - on the back of a donkey.
I cannot recommend this little enough.
The second time I rode a donkey was on Mount Tubkal in Morocco. Experiencing knee problems on the descent, I briefly rode a donkey along the winding rocky paths where a misstep would plunge us both into a rocky abyss. I realized that no knee pain was bad enough to overcome the sheer terror, not to mention extreme discomfort, of riding that donkey. I walked.
So when I consider the gravid Mary, already struggling to keep down her last meal of wild locusts and honey, traveling atop a cantankerous and bumpy ass, I am full of sympathy. I refer to imagine her riding an onager, the wild Asian ass native to the deserts of Syria and Israel. Onagers are more horselike and larger than donkeys, and bear on their backs a distinctive black stripe edged in white. Sadly, onagers are untamable and always have been.

But if you are still interested in acquiring a donkey, there are about 44 million in the world today, mostly in China, but easily available here. A certain relative of mine described them as expensive lawn ornaments. Though it is not clear whether he was referring to the initial expense of acquiring said donkeys, or the expense of feeding them and garbing them in Louis Vuitton saddlery.

Arrival of the Holy Family in Bethlehem, by Cornelis Massys, who interests me because he is the son of Quentin Massys, for whom there is a plaque in the square in front of the Antwerp Cathedral at the exact spot where a young man (who would have been my great-uncle had he lived) and his beloved landed when they jumped from the cathedral spire.

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