Wednesday, April 25, 2007


She walks casually by, then, just before she gets quite past the door, she stops to stare at me. Hesitant, she is ready to run for it. But she stops, as if she can't help herself, and stares. Assessing.

Hello, pretty girl, I say. What are you thinking?

She blinks. She does not answer or move at all. She just blinks and stares some more. Then, she walks away on the errands she chooses not to discuss with me.

But, after a while, she's back. She's going in the same direction again, right to left past the door. Again she stops. She looks up at me. She blinks.

So, what are you up to, little one? I ask.

She blinks at me, silent. She starts to walk away, hesitates, looks at me again. Blink. Blink.

Where's Gracie? I ask.

Lily walks away again.

Soon, she's back. Always going from right to left past the door. I never notice her going in the other direction, but I must assume she has made the return journey somehow. She is going right to left past the door again and she stops. She stares at me.

This occurs again and again as I sit, working in my office. It's always Lily, never Grace. Lily, assessing me, taking my measure, looking me over. I wonder what observations she is passing on to Grace. I'm sure they are discussing the situation, evaluating. Lily, the daring observer, Grace, hiding in the background, waiting for the information.

I hear them in the wee hours of the morning. They leap and jump around, making all sorts of noise when they think the Misty and I are asleep. They gleefully run from room to room, scrambling around a corner as they lose their footing on the wooden floors. I hope they are chasing mice, but they are probably only playing tag with each other. Bits of my asparagus fern are littered on the carpet of the living room in the morning.

Once, when I speak, I almost think Lily is going to come over for a scratch behind the ears, but no. She is still too nervous. She turns away and walks under the dining room table.


Monday, April 23, 2007

Beta Maryam

(March 18, 2007: Lalibela, Ethiopia.)

Beta Maryam, the Church of Mary

Opposite the west entrance to Medhane Alem, a tunnel cut into the rock wall leads into a large court containing three churches. Beta Maryam stands in the middle, Beta Masqal to the north and Beta Danagel to the south.

The various windows on the east facade, the cut-out designs, feature different crosses as well as different religious symbols.

Isn't she pretty?

In the courtyard, to the east, by the tunnel-entrance from the court of Medhane Alem, there is this baptistry. It has wide external stairs and two small interior staircases. Dedicated to the Mother Mary, this very deep pool is said to have miraculous properties. It is visited on certain special days by infertile women, the reeds are pushed aside and the women step down to immerse themselves in the water.

Beta Maryam is unique in that it has three exterior porches. They are closed at the sides except at the top where there are open arches. The front is open and has a central column with corbels. There is another column in the middle of the porch. Each porch leads to an entrance to Beta Maryam into the west half of the church, from the north, south and west sides.
Facing west here, we are looking at a passage way with a double entrance across from the west entrance of Beta Maryam. The two openings above are to an area known as the tribune or 'royal box' of Lalibela. It affords views of the western facade of Beta Maryam and the courtyard on this side, and out the other side, views of Lalibela village.

In contrast to the grand simplicity of Medhane Alem, Beta Maryam is highly decorated inside and out. The ceiling and upper walls are covered with frescoes, the columns and arches carved. Above, a carved bas-relief, above the western porch, of St. George fighting the dragon.

Worshipers outside the south entrance to Beta Masqal, some leaning on prayer sticks.

Note here the priest showing us another one of the treasured crosses. The style is very different from the Lalibela-style cross shown us in Medhane Alem (see previous post). Behind the priest is an example of the many holy paintings to be found in the churches, some brought out for display only on special occasions. I like this one for the stylized eyes typical of many sacred paintings in Ethiopia. Note the "afro" hair on some of the characters. (More on the sacred art later.)

Beta Maryam has three aisles, the centre aisle, or nave, much higher than the outer two. At the east end of the centre nave, in front of the Holy of Holies, there is a very tall column that rises right to the centre of the transverse arch. It is always kept veiled. The legend is that the Holy King Lalibela had a vision in which Christ himself leaned against this pillar. Now, it is said, "the past and future of the world" are inscribed upon it. It is called the Pillar of Light because once it was unveiled and a miraculous light flooded the area.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

first steps

This is a Big Request for your help. I know that through the magic of 6-degrees of separation and other such forces, there will be someone among my beloved readers who will be able to give me some real, solid answers here.

For many years I have had the not-so-secret desire to return to Ethiopia to live. My recent visit did nothing to cool that desire. In fact, it has only fanned the flames.

So here is my problem. How do I do that? Wait, bear with me. I have not done any job hunting for 20 years, so I'm quite out of practice. I would need a job to obtain a visa. I have done some browsing online of ngo's, etc., to see what opportunities might be there without much luck. Although, like a lot of people I suppose, I live from paycheck to paycheck, I can imagine finding ways to support myself if I were to go as a volunteer for a time.

I have worked as a Registered Nurse for many years on a busy inpatient surgical care ward and thus I have extensive experience in post-surgical care of most of the surgical specialties: general, thoracic, urological, gynecological; even some plastic, orthopedic and vascular. Prior to that, I worked as the French Specialist teacher at the High School level -- therefore my continued interest in education.

Now, armed with perhaps more personal information than I had ever intended to give here on a blog concerned in a general way with gardening, perhaps you can think of some concrete, helpful information that I need. If you do, email me.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Medhane Alem

(March 18, 2007: Lalibela, Ethiopia.)

Medhane Alem, the Savior of the World

The first of the rock cut churches of Lalibela that we were to visit was Medhane Alem. We arrived with a hot sun blistering down in the thin mountain air. Around the compound of the churches, a few trees provided some shade. Outside the gates, a cobblestone road winds past into the older part of the town.

One approaches Medhane Alem via stairs cut into the southwest corner of a huge pit. Inside this pit sits perhaps the largest rock cut church in the world, 33.5 m by 23.5 m, and 11 m high, elevated above the floor of the pit on a large platform. 34 large square stone pillars, cut of one piece with the church, form an exterior collonade with a pleasing symmetry. The overhangs are carved with curved blind arches.

The immense size of this church can be seen in relation to our guide, here standing at the southwest entrance to the church.

Visible lines in some of the columns attest to the reconstruction that has been done. Some of the columns and part of the roof had collapsed. The original columns and the roof were carved in one piece out of the red volcanic rock.

Carved into the walls of the pit are some tombs and storage spaces. Some of the empty tombs became temporary housing in the past for pilgrims during festivals or Holy Days.

In a country that gets torrential downpours during the rainy season, handling the runoff of water was given careful consideration. We were shown channels carved into the floor of the pit and openings in the walls which carry water away and down to the "River Jordan".
The organizers of our tour arranged for two "shoe minders". By encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit in this way it is hoped that the constant presence of beggars will be reduced. The two lads were very helpful as well in places where the passage-ways were very steep and steps difficult to climb.
Shoes must always be removed prior to entering Ethiopian churches.

Inside the church, the eye is drawn upwards to the high vaulted ceiling of the central nave. Two aisles run parallel to the nave on both sides, for a total of 5 aisles. The ceiling is supported inside by another 28 pillars, 4 rows of 7 columns, which rise into arches with corbels, the arches of the central nave rising higher to follow the curve of the vaulted ceiling. The interior columns are aligned with the exterior ones and with pilasters on all four interior walls. In each bay thus formed, where there isn't a door, there are windows. The top of each window is also curved with corbels. The bottom half of each window is decorated with an insert of carved stone of many various types of crosses.

As with most Ethiopian churches, the interior is divided into three spaces. The outermost is where the choir sings the hymns or chants. Next comes the space where communion is given. The innermost space, at the east end, is the Holy of Holies and is shut off by curtains. Only priests and deacons are allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. It is there that the tabot or altar tablet is kept. The tabot is a representation of the Ark of the Covenant, or the tablet upon which the law was given to Moses. The original is said to be in a shrine at Axum (more on that later).

We were shown a depression in the stone of one of the columns of the nave. This is where it is said that the original Lalibela cross was found. One of the treasures of this church is the 7 kg gold Lalibela-style cross that is said to be the processional cross of King Lalibela himself. It was stolen in 1996 and sold to a Belgian collector for US$25,000. It was fortunately retrieved from Belgium in 1998 and returned to Ethiopia.

Our shoe minders help us as we exit Medhane Alem.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

too wild

I was driving home this evening, admiring a deer off in a field that I could just see in the gathering dark, just before getting to my laneway. Upon turning into my laneway, what should be in the headlights but a bear! Now, I shouldn't be surprised because it's not as if this isn't bear country, but this was the first time I actually saw one so close to my home.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

the ice is gone

only some ice washed up onto the shore, or onto docks, is evidence of the ice recently departed from the lake

can you see the pair of bufflehead ducks at all, swimming away from me and my camera?

can you see the ospreys' nest in the top of the white pine? I look forward to many exciting sightings of these magnificent water-diving raptors.

Did spring suddenly arrive?

Sometime during the last few days the ice disappeared off the lake.
I spied some Buffleheads, Loons, Merganzers and Goldeneyes on the lake. In a very tall white pine in the woods, a pair of ospreys have built their huge nest of sticks, higgledy-piggledy.

As usual, all these birds do not allow me to appreciate them, swimming out of range of my camera, in the case of the water-birds, or flying off to circle the nest, in the case of the ospreys. The ospreys have an annoyed exchange of "yewk, yewk, yewk" between them as they fly around, in reaction to my disturbing the quiet.

As I write, a big wild turkey tom is showing off for a female, fanning out his colourful tail feathers. The female has sedately turned her back on him and is walking away to join the several other turkeys, striding across the field to the south of my house. The rows of corn stubble stick out in uneven rows in the dark soil, bare now that the snow has melted -- for good I hope.

And I noticed several buzzards circling in the air above the barn, when I popped into the kitchen to put the kettle on for a cup of tea. I wonder what carrion has attracted them?

Water has done its work on my laneway, washing away enough of the gravel around the culvert that it looks like everything might wash away quite easily, maybe even the next time we have some rain. The culvert directs the runoff from the north fields under the laneway.
The arrival of spring is not all that obvious in the woods, as yet -- I looked and looked!
Mosses have been green all winter, but they seem to have thrown up a fine, hairy mat of ?fruiting bodies.
The leaves of Round-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica americana, which persist all winter, are still wearing their winter red. One of the earliest woods' flowers to bloom, no sign of blooms is visible yet.
I'm looking forward to the exponential flowering of spring; I can keep up with what's in bloom at first, but soon, the explosion of flowers is altogether too much to enumerate.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Lalibela impressions

(March 18-20, 2007: the rock cut churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia.)

My father travelled to Lalibela on a mule and in the late '50s, the journey was an arduous one. Later, a road was built, but until 1997, that road was impassable during the rainy season. Lalibela is remote, in the Lasta mountain range, perched 2,630 m above sea level, on the slopes of Mount Abuna Yosef.

I always got a vibration of awe from my father when he spoke of Lalibela, a sense of the Ethiopian's extraordinary skill in stone working, an energy incomprehensible to a European mind that perhaps had difficulty reconciling a prejudice of somewhat lesser expectations with this feat of engineering. Reading what I could about Lalibela before my trip only whetted my appetite. As our plane (a Fokker 50, which is largely what Ethiopian Airlines flies within the country) approached Lalibela, I literally had anticipatory butterflies in my stomach!

A Unesco World Heritage Site, Lalibela is unique in that it has probably been a living site, a destination for pilgrims, since it was built to the present day. It is, as well as an archeological treasure, a marvel of architecture and stone masonry, a sacred site.

As one approaches Lalibela from the air, precipitous mountain ridges stretch out in all directions into a horizon hazy with the suspended dust of the Sahara. Scarcely a tree is visible, except in the circular compounds around the round churches atop hills. What is surprising is to see the use of nearly every square inch of arable land, stone walls marking the fields' perimeters in a crazy quilt pattern that covers all but the sheerest escarpments. Everywhere the rocky soil is bare, recently plowed in preparation for the spring plantings of barley and tef. Clusters of grass-thatched tukuls appear on a ridge, on the side of a mountain, at the top of a valley, invariably with the bright yellow buttons of a round hayrick nearby.

The Lalibela airport is a modern structure with bright plantings of flowers around it. It is in a valley, about 9 km from the modern town to which the citizens of Lalibela's old town are slowly resettling. The winding road up to Lalibela has no guard rails on the edges that drop heart-stoppingly away down the mountain side. Rounding bends, the driver constantly tootles the horn of our bus to warn the pedestrians and livestock of our approach. Motorized vehicles are relatively few.

Traffic on this road is very different from what I'm accustomed to: donkeys laden with sacks of grain, young men carrying large peeled poles of eucalyptus or sheets of corrugated tin above their heads, women carrying large sacks on their backs, students in clean school uniforms smiling and waving as we pass, men with easy gait holding their sturdy walking stick across their shoulders. In the cool of this mountain morning, everybody seems to be going up the mountain towards Lalibela and almost everybody is walking.

As we pass the traditional round tukuls along the road, or the more recently built rectangular homes of mud -daub wall with roofs of corrugated tin, small children with bare legs wearing over-sized ragged shirts stand in the yard, waving and yelling at our passing busload of foreign tourists: "hello, hello, hello, ferengi, ferengi, photo, photo, photo."

Not much about modern Lalibela gives any hints to the presence of the rock cut churches. The scenery around Lalibela is quite impressive in itself, purple mountain ridges, ambas (sheer-sided flat-topped mountains like mesas) and cool valleys on every side. With a population of about 7,500 and an additional 1,000 or so clerics, Lalibela is a busy place. Its large schools draw students from a wide rural area around as well. And during High Holy Days, pilgrims swell the population even more. But to the first-time visitor, it is hard to picture this place as the historical capital and holy centre of anything.

But I found Lalibela reveals itself slowly. Only by staying open to it for a day or two does one discover the rhythm of life in the place, the traffic to the early morning services in the churches, the beggars inside the gates of church compounds, the busy shops and markets of the town, the crowded schools where students attend classes in shifts, the evening promenade of throngs of young people up and down the main road.

And it is not until one begins the ascent of the steep mountain path to Asheten Maryam, a church cut into cliffs high above Lalibela, and looking down, that one catches a glimpse of the complex of churches and tunnels cut into the singular outcropping of red volcanic rock. In the photo above, protective roofs of corrugated tin are visible, constructed to prevent further deterioration of the roofs of some of the churches.

Not only are the dozen odd churches excavated from the rock, but they are connected by a vast network of tunnels to each other and to other chambers that were used for living, cooking, or storage. The tunnels extend upwards also to Asheten Maryam up in the cliffs above Lalibela, several kilometers away. It is fascinating to imagine the use of the tunnels for devotional processions that progressed upwards through the churches, perhaps even to Asheten Maryam, or the other surrounding churches.

Recent attempts by the priests to explore the tunnel connecting the churches of Lalibela with Asheten Maryam were halted by the lack of air deep in the tunnel, which forced the priests to turn back. Rumor has it that the tunnels hold sacred treasures that are protected from despoilers by miraculous forces. Needless to say, many of the tunnels in the complex are disused or blocked today.

The 11 churches that are to be found within the town of Lalibela are divided into two groups. The group known as the Northern Group lies to the north of a canalized river known as "The River Jordan." The other group lies somewhat to the east, with the most photographed of them all, Bet Giorgis, carved into the shape of a Greek cross, lying somewhat separately to the west. A third group of churches lies outside of the town and most of these are not on roads or marked on maps. I already mentioned Ashetan Maryam, up above the town, at 3150 m above sea level. Of the ten or so outlying churches, we also visited Na'akuto La'ab, about 7 km from the town, built in a cave near a small village of the same name.
(more photos of Lalibela to follow in future posts)

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