Of Origins and Destinations

In 2007, during Jean and my first and previous trip to South Africa, Cousin Ruth took us on safari to a midsized national park northwest of Johannesburg – Pilanesberg. The three of us got a jeep tour from a knowledgeable and personable guide, and we were thrilled to see giraffes, wildebeests, lions, hippos, black rhinos, impalas, elephants and plenty of zebras.   Along the way there, Ruth also brought us to the Maropeng Visitor Centre – Cradle of Humankind, which was a fantastic museum and interpretive center telling the primatological story of human’s emergence and divergence from hominids and apes.

As an aside – and this is my blog, so no one can effectively tell me not to indulge myself in asides from time to time – primatology was a key to my intellectual development. I had been a mediocre high school student and a failed college freshman, when I quit school to take a series of crummy jobs. Upon return to school a year later, at Bellevue Community College, I took a “Physical Anthropology” course that first quarter back.  Absolutely loved it and excelled and for the first time realized, “Hey, I might be pretty good at school after all.” So yes, Ruth hit the hosting gig jackpot by suggesting Maropeng.

Perhaps she was remembering my love of Maropeng when she and Joy suggested a trip to The Origins Centre on the campus of the University of Witwatersrand (Wits).  There was definite subject overlap between the two sites.  But there was also some distinctly different subject matter, with Origins spending considerable time and space for – and protecting magnificent artifacts of – the San People of southern Africa. A now discredited and archaic term for the San People are “Bushmen.”

The San People, principally hunter-gatherers, were described in the exhibits as descended from the original modern humans.  Perhaps their biology and culture are the oldest examples of homo sapiens sapiens. That’s our species… all of us (including the San). They still live in several countries in Southern Africa, including South Africa and Namibia, but most principally in Botswana. 

Early paleolithic stone tools displayed at The Origins Centre

The Origins Centre, part archaeological research program of Wits, part artifact storage repository, part archaeological museum, part modern art museum, and part traveling exhibit center, had a new exhibit which had drawn the interest of Joy and Ruth.  It was labeled “EXHIBITING! THE EMPIRE EXHIBITION: JOHANNESBURG, 1936.”  Here is its self-description:

The 1936 Empire Exhibition was the first representative exhibition to be held outside the United Kingdom, and the first international exhibition ever staged in the Union of South Africa. It was considered a monument to the progressiveness and prosperity of South Africa. It was held on what is now the University of the Witwatersrand’s West Campus and was an important part of Wits’ history. The show was a triumphant spectacle aimed at promoting Johannesburg and the Union of South Africa, established 1910, but the political policies of segregation and discrimination along racial lines were underway.

When we toured the Empire Exhibition, I was struck by a poster which displayed a cage where San people were locked inside. Visitors would throw food, watching them fetch like animals. As I was staring at the cage poster, stunned, a black staff person walked past me.  I caught her eye and began to reference the poster’s depiction of inhumanity. She quickly changed the subject to reference the positive aspects of The Empire Exhibition. My take on her thoughts: “Yeah, yeah, it was horrific… big deal, our whole racial history is. So, focus on the other pride-enhancing aspects of the empire event.”

Humans in Cages as an Empire’s Display

After our visit to Origins, we drove back to Joy’s home, picked up Swami, and all went for a meal and stroll at the Johannesburg Country Club in Auckland Park.  The club was an enormous and lush oasis in the middle of the city.  It had tennis and paddle courts (the paddle court size was the same as our pickleball, but the striping was all off.  Apparently these paddle courts are a recent hit – pun intended – like pickleball, but Africanized in some fashion). It had sumptuous gardens and broad lawns for kids free play. Indeed, it had a colonial feel, yet in this post-Apartheid era, it also had children of mixed races playing together. Black, brown and white were all served yummy food.

Joy and Swami at Johannesburg Country Club

Our mealtime discussion turned to the San People, and to all of our own interests and life quests. Joy had an idea. She turned to me and asked, “Would you be interested in a bone throwing reading from my friend Archaela?”

“Yes, absolutely,” was my response.  Because, as you have read throughout this blog, this is the trip of “yes.” But dear readers, this bone throwing needs some explanation.

Swami was not the only child of the Stein family who was a searcher and seeker into the world of spiritual enlightenment. Joy too has had such abiding interests, and, among other explorations, I seem to recall from 15 years previous, her desire to become a life coach. Currently, and for many years, she has been studying the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah. Archaela, Joy’s friend, is also studying Kabbalah in the same study group. 

As Joy described her to me, Archaela was to be seen, among other identities, as a seer, a mystical prognosticator. And she had an amazing background.  She was born and grew up in Portugal in an ostensibly Catholic home. As a young woman, she began to explore her roots and determined that she was in fact a Converso.  These were Jews (and for that matter also Moslems) at the time of the Spanish Inquisition (1478 and onward) who were told that they either must convert to Catholicism, or face prosecution – and sometimes death – as heretics.

This recognition of her historic identity led Archaela to dive deeply into Judaism. At some such time, my chronology is incomplete, Archaela then moved to South Africa and married a San man. There is a San religious tradition of mystical seers and healers who would throw bones to deliver life recommendations or to heal a client/patient. Archaela learned to incorporate this method of divination into her practice of healing and prognostication.

Joy called and asked Archaela whether she had time to see me.  She said she would have time the next day, identified the price for her services, but said that she wouldn’t throw bones.  She would use other modalities with me. I said I was fine with that, and we agreed to the next day’s session timing. She never exactly told me why she wouldn’t throw bones with me, but I got the impression that it was because I’m Jewish. Perhaps she thought it would be inappropriate to use a non-Jewish modality.

The next day’s session was supposed to last 30 to 60 minutes. In fact, we were together 90 minutes when Joy called and inquired, “when will you be done?” She and Roberto were understandably wondering how long they’d have to wait outside in the car.

My time with Archaela was deeply fascinating. And fun. And, in the end, surprisingly insightful and helpful.

She started by asking about me and my interests.  What was my career? Where am I now in my life?  What do I wish to do in the future and what if anything is blocking that? She then asked my exact birthdate and birthplace. She needed to read my birth parshah.  That portion of the Torah that is read on an annual cycle that corresponds to my exact birth. After that, it got interesting. Very interesting.

Archaela read from the parshah and then tried to summarize what she gleaned from both the Torah and what I had said before about my work and goals. “So, as a parks planner, you believe in sustainability, and that too is a central belief in Judaism,” she gently offered.

“Actually, not really,” I replied.  “This may come as a surprise to you, but I am very uncomfortable with the concept of sustainability. And in many ways, I do not see Jewish teachings as compatible with that approach to the world.  For example, “be fruitful and multiply” does not seem a particularly sustainable concept.”

The details of the subsequent hour are really not the point.  What was so extraordinary, so revealing, was that there was a dialog of mutual learning, openness and respect. Archaela would reach for a conclusion, I would accept some of it, but not all of it and we would both try to understand each other.

Finally, with time running out, she was determined for me to get my “money’s worth.” She wanted to give me a recommendation.  And she did. And it was just wonderful. Really helpful.

She told me that I must focus on completing some writing pieces that I told her about. I should declutter my life from less significant, less core pursuits.  She affirmed that I knew the destination I wanted to reach and that I should organize my life to that goal.

My last day and night in Joburg included some blessed opportunities to just hang out with Ruth.  We played Scrabble – each of us won a game!  Ruth was willing to show me some of the editing and writing work that she had done over the years and the nature of the process of editing that she uses now.  I enjoy editing, the process of discovery and the closing in on things that are close to truth.  So much learning!  And Ruth was an impressive practitioner.

On the last morning in Joburg, we snuck in our final Scrabble game and Ruth drove me to the airport where I was off to Cape Town. It was a full three days and three nights in South Africa’s largest city!

Some British flavor at the Joburg Airport


3 thoughts on “Of Origins and Destinations

  1. Fascinating. BTW, my two favorite courses at Cal were in anthropology. In my old age, I’m an a fanatic about archaeology. I subscribe to a wonderful magazine that has all the latest discoveries. Goin on a dig is on my bucket list before I die. Except it has to b under my terms: Shade, real toilets, and when the day is done a five-star hotel! Keep on writing! s



  2. David and I are reading your blogs aloud here and there as we continue to travel. We are in Madrid and will be in Baltimore for Passover and then home. David says the command “be fruitful and multiply” could now refer to spiritual growth today which could be sustainable. After all it was written in a different time when there were less people on earth. Hope to read more later and I will need to see your family tree at some point to keep it all straight!


  3. Really fascinating, all the stuff about primate history. We did the 23&me stuff; Nancy’s Neanderthal factor is toward the top of the distribution. Does that help to explain her?


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