Reintroducing Hradec Králové   2 comments

December, 2018
Barbara and I are back in the Czech Republic this winter and spring. We are in the same town where we spent the year in the fall of 2011 and winter/spring of 2012. Getting reacquainted with Hradec Králové has been a real pleasure.

The old city occupies the top of a low hill where the Labe and Orlice rivers come together. The river the Czech call “Labe” is the same as what the Germans call the “Elbe.” This river has its origins in the mountains north of Hradec Králové. After crossing the Czech Republic, it flows north through Germany to Hamburg and empties into the Baltic sea near the southwest corner of Denmark. This area has been farmed since the third century BCE. The combination of fertile soil in the swampy ground where the rivers joined and the strategic high ground of the hill was no doubt attractive. It is one of the oldest known settlements in the Czech Republic. Slavic speaking peoples occupied it after they migrated into this part of Europe in the 5th or 6th centuries CE.


During the middle ages, the town was a prosperous center of the region. It was the second largest town (after Prague) in the kingdom of Bohemia. Old maps indicate that there was a wall surrounding the town. The town was originally called “Hradec” (“hrad” means castle). Králové (of the queen) was added to the name of the town when it became one of the dowry towns of Elisabeth Richeza of Poland (1286–1335). She was queen to two Bohemian kings, and she lived here for thirty years. As a dowry town it was owned by the queen, and such towns had special political and economic rights.

In the 14th century, a Gothic brick cathedral was built. This building still dominates the center of town. In the picture above, you see both the cathedral and the other iconic building of Hradec Králové, the “white tower.” Finished in 1580, this clock tower can be seen for miles. An interesting feature of the clock tower is a bit difficult to see, but is odd when you notice: The hour hand is the long one, and the minute hand is the short one. It is said that this was so that the time could more easily be recognized by farmers working in the fields. Remarkably, this tower still has the original bell, cast in 1509. Most bells of this age were melted down during one war or another to make cannons.

Bohemia was a kingdom within the dominion of the Hapsburgs during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. During this period it was a center of learning. A Baroque cathedral was erected on the town square in the 17th century, and it was the home to a Jesuit seminary. Many of the older buildings in the center of the city probably date to this period. There is quite a bit of Baroque architecture and decoration.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Hradec Králové’s placement near the northern frontier of the Hapsburg lands gave it strategic significance. The fortifications were expanded, and by the mid-19th century, the fort was quite large. It had a classic star-design, and the rivers were engineered so that the land around the fort could be flooded. Remains of this engineering can be seen today. Hradec Králové was the site of one of the largest battles of the 19th century: the 1866 battle of Königgrätz. (Königgrätz is the German name for Hradec Králové). In this battle, the Prussian armies defeated the Austrians, with a combined casualty count of around 50,000 killed, wounded,or missing. The battlefield was a few miles from Hradec Králové, and the fortress played no strategic role. As so often happens in military history, the fortress technology reached its peak at about the same time that other weapons and tactics had made it obsolete.

In 1918, Czechoslovakia became independent of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the First Republic was founded. There was an exuberant period of building between the wars. The walls of the fortress were torn down and the bricks used for building. The architects who were pioneering a “modernist” style, including of Josef Gočár and Jan Kotěra. Cubism, familiar to most of us as a kind of painting, was very popular in the First Republic. There were cubist sculptures, cubist furniture, and even cubist architecture. Hradec Králové has several buildings in the cubist style. It became known as the “salon of the republic” for its artistic and cultural refinement.

Today Hradec Králové is a small city of around 100,000 souls. It is home to the university and the famous Petrof piano factory. It boasts many bike paths and it is a pleasant place to walk. It isn’t on the regular tourist route for the Czech Republic, but I highly recommend a visit. It is a charming place.


I am on Instagram, so if you’d like up-to-the-minute photos, find me there: mark.risjord.

Posted December 23, 2018 by markrisjord in Czech Republic

Il Chamus Country   Leave a comment

June 4-5. The next morning, we drove another hour to the Baringo area. This part of the rift valley is much drier than the country we had come through in the south. The green fields slowly gave way to acacia trees standing over a thin grass, and the grass slowly gave way to dirt. The photo below gives a nice view of the Il Chamus plain:
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You can just barely make out the mountains on other side of the rift valley. Merging with the mist, is Lake Marigat. The plain near the lake is wet enough to sustain a thin grass in the dry season. For at least two hundred years, a sub-group of the Masai, the Il Chamus Masai, have grazed their cattle here. In the wet season, they would move up the slopes, away from the heat and the mosquitos. Before the British arrived, they also had an irrigation system, permitting them to grow crops. They strongly preferred herding to farming, so they only planted crops if a drought had decimated their herds.

Unfortunately, today the Il Chamus are the victims of human environmental meddling. In the 1980s, the Kenyan government planted Prosopis, commonly known in as mesquite. Their aim was to provide firewood, reforest, and control erosion. It is thorny, tough, and prolific. It has entirely taken over many grazing areas. It takes up the moisture and nitrogen, killing what little grass there is. Nothing eats it—even the goats can’t eat it.

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As a result of the prosopis infestation, cattle herding is almost gone for a people whose identity was wrapped up in cattle. They do raise some sheep and goats, but the farming is awfully thin.

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The Il Chamus strongly value education, and they work hard to scrape together the resources to send their children to college. Some of them have gotten jobs in the government or elsewhere in the city. They send a portion of their income back to their families, and that keeps some of the folks who live here alive. Some have been able to buy land higher on the hillside, and they farm there too.

The British expanded the earlier irrigation system, and now a sizable part of the area near the lake is farmable. Still, they have struggled. We saw fields of corn, beans, and tomatoes. However, cash crops have not been very successful. The road to the market is still too rough to transport fragile vegetables like tomatoes, though they’ve had some success with watermelon. The current cash crop is seed corn.

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We toured the area with a research associate who owns a couple of plots of land, both here in the irrigation area and higher up. She showed us a small shop that she’s having constructed. It was in a group of buildings almost too sparse to call a village. It had a couple of churches and several small shops. One sold CDs, though I wondered who had the equipment to play them.

She also took us to the shore of lake Marigat. This is reportedly a high tourist area, with weekend visitors from Nairobi and Nakuru. We visited on a Sunday morning, and the place looked pretty deserted to me.  Apparently somebody sells Coca-Cola, sometime.

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We pulled into one of the hotel compounds, where we could get a good look at the lake. There are hippos in this lake, but they weren’t in evidence at this time of day. An ostrich grazed on the beach. We also saw a crocodile (a small one, say 6 feet or so) cruising along.

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Our research associate drove a large, four-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruiser, much newer than the one we’d used in Ethiopia. The four-wheel drive was often necessary, since the roads were often little more than tracks, and there were patches of deep sand and mud (near the irrigation system). She played (at reasonable volume) some very American rap music. She never commented on it, so we weren’t sure whether she was doing it for our benefit, or because she liked it. In any case, it was surreal to be bouncing along in a big SUV, with the rap music thumping, through this moonscape of poor farms.

We also visited a camp of “internally displaced persons.” This camp was established by one of the Il Chamus chiefs for the benefit of Il Chamus who have been pushed off their farms. Ethnic conflict and land disputes across the lake have gotten violent, and many have fled.

We spoke to a group of elders. They are hoping to go to court to adjudicate the land dispute. Apparently, they have a good historical claim to the area. But the land has always been communal, so there are no property deeds. And the politics are complicated, so they have little hope that there would be redress, even if the court decided in their favor.

The sad story of this area is summed up in the picture below.

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When times were good, the Masai, including the Il Chamus, lived primarily by drinking the milk of their cattle. Fresh milk remains their symbol of the idyllic life. In the picture above you see the dairy—milk is now brought by truck. On the hillside behind, you can see how the prosopis has taken over.

Many of you have asked about the research project that brought me here. We’re studying wellbeing, and how/why the wellbeing of people in impoverished areas rises and falls. Clearly wealth is a part of the picture, but it is well known that wealth alone is neither necessary nor sufficient. So what else is? Don’t ask me yet, since this study is at its very beginning. We were here organizing the project (or rather, my colleague from anthropology was organizing; I was taking pictures and working on theory). Perhaps in a couple of years we’ll have something interesting. Or not…that’s science for you.

Posted June 10, 2017 by markrisjord in Africa, Mark, Uncategorized

Kenya: Return to the Rift Valley   Leave a comment

June 2-3, 2017 .I am traveling in East Africa because a colleague and I are working on a comparative project. The first part was in the highlands of Ethiopia, and the second is in the lowlands of Kenya. We’ve moved from an altitude of more than 8000 feet to one that is about 600 feet above sea level. We’re still in the rift valley, but we’ve moved south. It is much more distinctly a valley—and a rift—than in Ethiopia.

The big picture of this leg of the trip is that we landed in Nairobi and drove to Nakuru, to the northwest (its on the map).  Nakuru is in the rift valley.  We then proceeded north to the Baringo province, up the rift valley to the north of Nakuru.  If you click on the map below, you can zoom into these areas.

Physical Map of RIFT VALLEY
Physical Map of RIFT VALLEY

But let me begin at the beginning.  During our last three days in Ethiopia, the government had shut down the internet.  Ethiopia’s politics are very complicated.  It is officially a federation of states, and each state is dominated by an ethnic group.  One of these has been agitating recently, and last year they disrupted a national exam by releasing the answers on social media.  So, this year the government shut down the internet entirely.  You can imagine the chaos that caused with businesses.

When we arrived at the Addis Ababa airport, we found that our Ethiopian Airways flight to Nairobi had been cancelled entirely.  We were to fly in the morning, and the next flight was in the late afternoon.  I was emotionally girding myself for a long day in the terminal, but my colleague was proactive.  He began working on the folks managing the desk. There was a Kenya Airlines flight leaving within the hour, but because of the lack of internet, Kenya air couldn’t communicate with its home base to give us a ticket.  Ultimately, the Ethiopian Airlines folks hand wrote (old school!) a ticket transfer, and we got ourselves put on the Kenya Airlines flight.  We barely made it before the airplane doors closed.  I was glad that I was travelling light enough to have all carry-on bags.

After spending the night in Nairobi, we got on the road.  Nairobi is a very modern city, at least in some ways.  There are sparkling skyscrapers in the downtown area, and a modern, four-lane highway that goes around the city.  Other parts are rougher: merchants with their vegetables spread on a dirty piece of plastic in the dirt, rows of tiny shops, crowded streets.  Every bit of open space in the densely packed neighborhoods is used for raising crops or grazing livestock.  The highway goes through the slums—reportedly the largest slum area in Africa.  Like the slums of Mumbai, these are shacks made of sheet metal.  They are densely packed, separated by dirt paths.  Unlike Mumbai, there were few TV antennas; I guessed that the Nairobi slum was the poorer.

Outside of the city, the road rose steadily toward the lip of the rift valley.  At the edge, the land dropped dramaticallyP1020081 (3)

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We wound our way toward the floor of the valley.  In this area, they get good rains in the summer.  It was the heart of the British colonial agricultural area.  Before the British, the Masi would graze their cattle herds here, comingling with farmers (not always peacefully).  Human expansion has reduced the wildlife.  My colleague, who has been working in this part of Kenya for 30 years, said that one used to see giraffes and rhinos along this stretch.  We did see several herds of zebra, and I spotted a couple of tortoises.

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Today, the area looks like it is prospering.  The houses are stone, mostly painted, and well made.  I don’t think that very many have plumbing, but they do seem to have electricity.

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The bottom of the rift valley is dotted with large lakes.  In prehistoric times, these lakes were much larger.  Many of the early hominid finds are from the edges of these prehistoric lakes.  Some of the remaining lakes, like this, are made alkaline by the underlying rock.  The don’t support fish, but the flamingos feed on the blue-green algae.  If you zoom in on the photos below, you can see areas that look like white beaches—they are huge flocks of flamingos.

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The road on which we were travelling is a major highway from the ports on the coast to inland Africa – Uganda and the Congo.  There were lots of big, overloaded trucks on a narrow two-lane road.  Other than that, however, the highway wasn’t too crowded.   The major hazards were troops of baboons, herds of goats, and the occasional donkey on the shoulder.  Oh, and the speed controls were rather nasty:

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They used both standard speed bumps and these tire-killers to slow the traffic down.  They were largely unmarked, making night driving treacherous.  The tire-killers were offset, so one had to wind between them.  As you can see, some of the trucks apparently missed…

In Nakuru, we met with some of our research associates.  We spent the night in a very noisy hotel.  There was some kind of Christian Youth Group party on the floor above us.  It started with a live band, then moved to speeches and guitar singalongs.  Fortunately, it was over by about 10:30.  In the meantime, I was thankful for my noise-cancelling headphones.

Posted June 9, 2017 by markrisjord in Africa, Uncategorized

Farms, lakes, and a Monastery   2 comments

May 29, 2017.  On our last day in the Dessie area, we began by visiting an area served by an irrigation system.  Not only were the farms here more stable, the area was undergoing a housing boom.  It was close enough to Dessie that it could start to serve as a kind of a suburb.  Many of the houses were served by electricity, though none had plumbing of any kind.

Turning off the main road and into a cluster of houses, we got to see the construction techniques up close.  In the picture below, you can see that the walls of the house are composed of split beams.  The wood is Eucalyptus, which is grown locally.  It grows quickly, even in areas with little water.  It forms long poles, and after cutting it re-grows from the root.  One sees it on every hillside too steep to cultivate.  Along the road, and in the towns, there are great piles of poles and split rails ready for transport.


The wooden walls are covered with a mixture of mud and straw.  Then a wire mesh is attached, and mortar is applied to the outside.  This is much better than the mud alone in the rains, for obvious reasons.  Later, the mortar is painted.  It all seems to happen slowly, as people save enough to purchase the supplies.


While walking around among the farms, we struck up a conversation with some of the people.  They invited us to see inside their houses.  I took these pictures of the kitchen.



The kitchen was a separate hut with a thatched roof, mud walls, and a dirt floor.  I noticed that they had two cooking fires.  In the first picture, above, the pot is over a small fire. In the second picture, you can see the hearth up against the wall.  This had a griddle for cooking injera.  There was no chimney for the smoke, but the mud that covered the walls stopped about a foot below the roof, leaving an open grate of wooden slats for ventilation.  A calf was curled up in one corner.



Working our way along the valley floor, we drove to the edge of the river bed.  We got out and looked around, checking out the irrigation system and the crops.  It seemed to be a busy place, with people washing their clothes in the river, or just passing through.



On the way back to town, we passed several groups who were threshing.  In the first picture, they seem to be threshing wheat or barley; in the second, they are threshing a locally used legume, something like a small lentil.





In the picture below, taken from the valley floor, you can see the road back up to Dessie on the right hand side.  All of the housing is urban sprawl, African style.


After lunch, we continued on the main road north, out of Dessie.  Here, we were looking for the Coptic monastery on Lake Hayq (also spelled Haik).




In the 1970s, the water receded (nobody really knows why) and the monastery is now on a peninsula. We walked through the main gate of the monastery and along the low-lying peninsula.  On both sides, the monks had planted fruit trees (orange and mango), as well as coffee trees.  They grow all of their own food, and they seem to sell the excess to the locals.



The first church was built on this site in 862AD on—what was then—an island in the lake.  The monastery was established in the thirteenth century.  The monastery was an important site in medieval Ethiopia.  They collected books and were a site of learning, and many of the early Ethiopian church fathers came from here.  The monastery was destroyed in 1531 by Ahmed Gragn, who was conquering the area and converting the occupants to Islam.

We weren’t allowed in the church, but there is a little museum.  It houses a number of relics from the 13th Century monastery, including a some quite beautiful illuminated manuscripts.  These were interesting because they are written in Geez, a precursor to modern Amharic and Oromo (the common languages of this area.)  It is no longer spoken, but Copic services are given in Geez.

Behind the museum, some of the monks and a number of their students were threshing corn.






A view from the farmyard


There are several dozen monks and about one hundred students.  The students were threshing the corn in a kind of farmyard.  On the steps of a nearby building, I saw these baskets in process.  Presumably they were made for their own use (we didn’t see any for sale).

Back at the entrance, we saw the companion nunnery.  No men were allowed here; and no women were allowed into the grounds of the monastery.


As we watched, a ferry boat left for the far side of the lake.


We returned to Dessie for the night, catching this final view of the valley below.


Posted June 4, 2017 by markrisjord in Africa, Uncategorized

People of the Mountain Tops   Leave a comment

May 29, 2017.   Today we headed further north to visit one of our field sites.  It was market day in Dessie, so we first had to slowly work the car through crowds of people coming to town.  They were carrying chickens by the feet, herding goats, goading donkeys laden with bags of grain.  The sellers sprawled onto the street, their goods spread out on the dirt before them.

When we were free from the city, we worked our way into the mountains.  Here the landscape was high meadows surrounded by rough peaks.


These pictures make Ethiopia look as green as Ireland, and it is…now.  This area is in a rain shadow formed by the mountains further to the east.  There are two seasonal rains, a short one in February, then a longer rain in June.  Right now, the June rains are just about to begin, and they had a good February rain.  The green you see in these pictures reflects crops planted early in the spring.  Some are already being harvested. The tilled soil is being prepared for the summer rains. Overall, however, the area does not receive a lot of rainfall, and the February rains fail often.  These farmers plant almost entirely for their own subsistence.  In a good year, they sell or barter their excess.  There are no “cash crops” in this area.


We drove four about 45 minutes on the tarmac road.  We then turned off onto a dirt track, went through a small hamlet, and across the ridgetops. We stopped at a school, which was in the center of a handful of farms.  The children were outside for recess, and our arrival was, of course, an enormous  event.



We wandered around a bit, and found a couple of men working a field with a pair of oxen. They were planting a grain that they would use for animal fodder.


They used to graze their herds in communal areas, but these have slowly been encroached upon my cultivation. Also, the government has begun to protect the watersheds, and has restricted grazing in designated watersheds.  This means smaller herds, and necessitates more fields dedicated to fodder.




In the picture above, the man in front is spreading the seeds by hand.  The ploughman follows him, and turns the seed into the soil.  The plough is made of wood, but it is tipped with iron.  The ploughman worked barefoot, his shoes set beside the field.  We asked why, and he said “you don’t walk on your bread.”  We pointed out that he wasn’t planning teff (the grain used for jnjera, the Ethiopian bread), but fodder. He said it was the same principle: this was the cow’s bread.

We then worked our way along the very rocky track toward the tarmac road.


Back at the main road, we stopped while our colleague conduced an interview with a local shopkeeper.  You could tell how poor the area was by the shop.  The luxury goods were bottled water and bottled juice, which he probably kept for the buses that travelled the main road.  Otherwise the shop had only a few small necessities, such as salt or soap.  The children were coming home from school (a different school than pictured earlier), and we were again a main attraction.


On the way back to Dessie, we suddenly heard a loud “bang.”  One of the rear tires had blown out.  A large chunk of rubber was missing, probably from the rocky track.  In this country, one doesn’t travel without a spare – or even two, if one is going deep into the bush.


While we were waiting, this donkey train came by.


Once the driver had changed the tire, we were on our way back to Dessie.

Posted June 3, 2017 by markrisjord in Africa, Uncategorized

From Addis Ababa to Dessie Part 2 of 2   2 comments

May 28, 2017.  The Great Rift valley runs through the highlands of Ethiopia.   It is formed by the tectonic plates pulling apart.   (If you look again at the map on the last blog, you can see this lowland area cutting across the country.)  It starts down in central East Africa, where the basins form the great freshwater lakes of Kenya and Uganda. To the north, the rift in the tectonic plates runs to Israel.

We climbed out of Addis Ababa and wound our way to the lip of the rift valley.  The road took us to the edge of the valley, down into it, then back up the escarpment at Dessie.

At one point, a gap in the mountains gave us a spectacular view.  We pulled off for some pictures.

There were not only Ethiopian travelers who stopped for the view, a carload of Chinese businessmen were there too. The Chinese have invested heavily in Africa.  They have built many roads, railways, and factories.  By building infrastructure, they are increasing the capacity of Ethiopia and Kenya to export to China.  If I may be political for a moment, Trump is right that China is beating the US, it is just beating us in entirely different ways than he says.


At the lip of the Rift Valley, we entered a series of tunnels that took us through the roughest part.  These were made by the Italians during their occupation (dates).  For many years, these tunnels were decorated with Mussolini’s name.  the road also crossed many bridges made during this period, like the one below.

Italian Bridge

After we came through the tunnels, we wound down a very steep escarpment into the valley.  The slopes were forested, and we passed a troop of baboons.

While we were at the edge of the Rift Valley, we still had mountains on both sides of us.  we were following a river that flowed from the highlands.  The valley in which we found our selves had a very flat, wide floor.  At points, it must have been 5 miles wide or more.  A river wound lazily through it, leaving a wide, rock strewn path and a trickle of water.  In the wet season, it runs full, and often floods the plain.   We often could see pools of water in the grass, so the land seemed rather marshy this time of year.  It makes excellent grazing for cattle and other livestock, and the farmers here traditionally  use this as a common grazing land.

The good grazing also attracts nomadic herders.  In the dry season, they live in the lower valleys.  But in the wet season, the come to the higher altitudes to graze their herds of cattle on the good grass of this valley.  In the second picture, below, you can see their temporary settlement set up in the middle of the valley, away from the permanent farmers who live along the edge.


At long last, we began the final climb up to Dessie. This town sits high above the valley, nestled among some steep and dramatic peaks.  The road was a little hairy – hairpin turns with little or nothing to serve as a barrier to the abyss below.


A rare guard rail!



No guard rail here, and you can see the lower stretch of the road below.

While it seemed that we were in a very remote area of Ethiopia, Dessie is a booming metropolis of 250,000 people.  Multi-story buildings are sprouting up, though most of the homes are packed into dense collections of ramshackle shacks.


We had dinner overlooking a main traffic circle.  Not a quiet spot, but interesting.  Two wedding parties came by.  One was followed by several of the little blue vans that serve as small busses (you can see some in the photo).  All were honking their horns, and the lead car was decorated with white ribbons.  It was a very familiar ceremony; we used to do the same thing when I lived in Madison Wisconsin.  Later, another, richer party came through.  The guests were not in minivans.


The town seems to be a major market center, as well as a transportation hub.  It began to grow in the 19th century when Emperor Yohannes IV made it his base of operations as he reconverted this area to Christianity.  The Italians liked the location and made it an administrative center as well.

The two pictures above were taken from the roof of our hotel.  Past the cliffs on the right side, the land drops steeply to the valley.


Posted June 2, 2017 by markrisjord in Uncategorized

The Road from Addis Ababa to Dessie, Part 1 of 2   2 comments

May 28, 2017.  We left Addis Ababa on the road north to Dessie around 8.  We were looking at an eight to nine-hour drive through the Ethiopian highlands.   Our vehicle was an aging Toyota Landcruser.  It had a shimmy that made the hood shake when it reached 30 mph.  The shaking would stop around 35mph, but when we got up to 60 – which was rare – the sagging shocks and uneven road made the car pitch in an unnerving way.

My companions we both academics: an anthropologist from Emory and an expert in agricultural development from Addis Ababa university.  We were traveling on a grant funded project to study wellbeing in East Africa.  We’re visiting a site near Dessie (also spelled Desi), and next week we’ll travel to Kenya.  The area around Dessie is very poor, and it is quite vulnerable to drought and then severe food shortages.

The road to Dessie was a winding two-lane.    Ethiopia has one of the highest density populations in Africa, but 80% of the people are rural.  For us, this mean that even once we were out of Addis, the road was never clear of people and livestock.  There were also big, overloaded trucks, horse-drawn carts, and three-wheeled cars called “Bajaj” here (known in India as autorickshaws or tuc-tucs).



Farms were everywhere, and every few kilometers we would pass a village.  The farmers raise cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, mules, and horses.  Most surprising to me were the camels.  They are common beasts of burden, and we saw many camel trains like the one below

Camel2Camel Train

Addis Ababa is at the edge of the highlands, and it sits in a high valley (7,500 feet) surrounded by higher mountains.  As we drove north, the land slowly rose toward the lip of the Great Rift Valley.   This map might give you a sense of the country.  You can click on it to magnify, and if you look closely, you can see the road running from Addis Ababa to Dessie.

Satellite 3D Map of Ethiopia, physical outside, satellite sea
Satellite 3D Map of Ethiopia, physical outside, satellite sea


From a distance, and at this time of year, the farming in the Ethiopian highlands looks good.  The pastures are green, and the turned earth is dark.  We are at the beginning of the summer rainy season.  The picture below is of a traditional farm.  The houses are made by a wattle-and-daub technique.  Polls are raised for the walls, and these are covered with a mixture of mud and straw.  The roof is thatch.

Traditional farm

This is one of the few farms with fully traditional buildings we saw. Thatch roofs have been largely replaced by metal, even in very poor areas.  This farm is more typical.  The thatch roofed huts are probably the kitchen or for farm animals.  Apparently, the smoke from the kitchen (they all cook on wood or charcoal fires) will rust the roof, so they have a separate kitchen.


While the metal is much hotter, it has some advantages.  Metal is more waterproof in the rainy season, and it does not collect bugs and other vermin the way thatch does.  Also, the thatch was collected from wild sources.  Because of increasing land use, the thatch is not as readily available.  We did see this woman carrying thatch:


The dominant religions here are Islam and Coptic Christianity.  Christianity was established in Egypt by St. Mark, and spread to Ethiopia.   Lore has it that the Arc of the Covenant was brought to Ethiopia by  Emperor Menelik I, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheeba.  In any case, it was established by the fourth century AD.  The Copts split from what became the Roman tradition after the Council of Council of Chalcedon in 451AD.  The dispute is very philosophical, and it involved the difficulty of reconciling the human and divine nature of Christ.  While the Eastern church affirmed that Christ has one nature, both divine and human, the Copts held that there were two distinct natures combined in one person.  Later, Islam spread here too, via Somalia, to the south.  The Coptic churches are either round or octagonal.


We often saw small shrines on the roadside, and the occasional priest, like the one below, apparently giving out blessings to travelers.  And we need them: we saw a half dozen over-turned or otherwise crashed vehicles along the roadside, all recent…

Coptic Priest

Posted June 1, 2017 by markrisjord in Africa, Uncategorized

A Small Buddhist Shrine   2 comments

Well, I’m back in the south of India, teaching philosophy of science to Tibetan monks. This is the sixth year I’ve done it, and while some aspects have become strangely familiar, there is always something charming, puzzling, or mysterious about the trip.

This year, I made the acquaintance of an older monk, Karma. He is a delightful fellow who has done videography for most of his monkly career. On our day off from teaching, he offered to take us to a nearby shrine, one I hadn’t seen.

It was already getting rather hot when we walked out of the monastery around 10 AM. The shrine was on a small conical hill, not far off of the road to town. I had noticed the copious prayer flags on this hill before, but I hadn’t asked why.

We left the road and followed a path across the fields. I remarked to a companion that it felt like Wisconsin in August. The sun was beating down and made the fields smell of earth and dry grass. I then noticed a VERY large black scorpion, at least 5 inches long, that had been killed by somebody or something. That made me a little more cautious about where I put my feet.


Prayer flags

When we got to the top, I could see that there were several very tall polls, probably 20 feet high or more. They had ropes going down in all directions, and these were covered with prayer flags.

The shrine itself was very modest. A large concrete slap was covered with a metal roof. In its shelter, four monks from the monastery were chanting prayers in front of a very small shrine. This contained the image of the Dalai Lama and some other auspicious persons. Karma told us that the monks would come when they needed good luck on their exams. The local Tibetan folks would also sponsor pujas when they needed an auspicious start to a project, like building a house.


Prayers at the shrine


The shrine

One of the curious features of the site was something that looked like a wall. It is on the left in the photo below.


The wall of tablets

This was either covered with, or mostly composed of, fragments of writing and photographs. Many of the writing fragments had been written into stone (clay? cement?) tablets. Tibetan Buddhists treat any writing, and especially writing that mentions the Dalai Lama or Buddhist scripture with great reverence. It must be ceremonially burned. I couldn’t tell whether these were brought as offerings, or whether they were here for respectful disposal. Perhaps both.



Sacred writing

Even more curious were small conical lumps of mud. Karma said that they were made here as offerings. The Tibetans mix mud, ashes, and “precious things” together, then leave them here to deteriorate. Some (all?) of them seem to contain funerary ashes too.


Offerings of mud, ashes, and “precious things”

At one end, there was an enormous urn. It had obviously been burning paper, but the smoke was fragrant. It must have been mixed with some kind of incense. Karma poked playfully at the ashes.


Karma and the world’s largest incense burner

Up on the shrine, a couple of dogs napped fitfully. I snapped these photos for my “dogs of dharma” collection.


Dogs of Dharma 1


Dogs of Dharma 2


Cricket is inevitable

We continued into town from the hill. On the road I spotted this sign. Laxmi is the wife of Vishnu, and is often identified with good fortune and prosperity. There are many businesses named after her. But can you imagine what people in the US would say if somebody named their business “Mother Mary’s Septic Cleaners”?


Not seen in the US



Posted May 24, 2017 by markrisjord in India, Mark, Uncategorized

Four Days in Mumbai: Sketches Volume III   Leave a comment

Cricket at the Oval

One afternoon, while Barbara rested at the hotel, I took a stroll to “the Oval.” This is an open park that is used extensively for cricket. I really enjoy watching cricket, so I thought it would be fun to watch the kids play. It was a wondrous scene. There were some areas set aside for serious club- or league- play. Here the players were in their whites and they played on full-sized cricket fields. The rest of the part was informal pick-up games. 

A cricket field is a circle of roughly 500 yards diameter, with a rectangular area (the “pitch”) in the middle. The bowler (pitcher) throws the ball from one end of the pitch, and the batsman defends the wicket at the other. The batsman can hit the ball in any direction, even behind him, and the fielders try to catch the ball in the air, much like baseball..

What made cricket at the oval wondrous was that the informal areas of play overlapped in a mind-bending Venn Diagram of cricket fields. Wickets were set up all over, each manned by a batsman and bowler. There were fielders attending the swings of various batsmen, but they were all mixed together. Only by watching their eyes and how they responded to the pitcher, could tell which game they were playing.

Hanging Garden
We took a stroll in the “hanging garden.” I never was clear about what was to hang here: it was a park at the top of a hill in a nice part of Mumbai. It is between seasons here, and the garden was in transition too. Most of the plantings had been dug up. Still, it was pleasant. As I was taking photos of Barbara near a banyan tree, we heard shrieks and were descended upon by a herd of 13 year old girls with 4 or 5 boys in tow. “Selfie?” they asked. I (quite reasonably) assumed that they wanted their pictures with Barbara, so I tried to slip to the side. But one of the girls said “You too uncle!” so I sheepishly joined Barbara as they crowded around us. They were a very excited and cute group. They didn’t have much English, so the conversation was short, and then they evaporated into the park. We may have been trending on Facebook that evening.

Beggars and Touts

We were pretty successful in dodging the beggars and touts on this trip. For those of you who might travel in places like this (and for those of you who are just curious), here are the tricks that seem to work for us.

Look like you know what you’re doing and where you are going; walk with purpose. If you stand gawking in an area heavily traveled by tourists, the beggars and con artists will descend on you like flies. (By contrast, in areas that are not so touristy, people leave you alone.)

Don’t explain. If a salesman offers you, say, a four-foot long balloon (yes, they tried to sell us these), don’t say “Boy that sure is nice, but I just don’t have room in my bag for it.” If you do, the guy next to him is going to try to sell you a bag. If you tell the beggar “I don’t have any money on me right now,” she’ll offer to show you to the nearest ATM. Explaining starts a conversation you don’t want to have and an argument you cant win. Just say “no” and keep walking (see the entry under “Be Firm”).

Don’t look interested. The salesmen watch your eyes, and if you look interested, they’ve got one hook in you. I notice that the locals shop this way. They don’t sneer so much as look bored as they glance over a table full of goods. I found that the Indian head bobble works well as a response to a salesman’s advance as I walk by.. It says “yup, I heard you, and I’m saying neither yes nor no to your goods.”

Be firm. The beggars will become persistent if they sense a soft touch. One doesn’t have to be mean or ugly, but one good “No” should do the job. After that, ignore them and go about your business. Remember, they are professionals (often exploited or run by others). They’ll move on if you show no signs of producing.

Having said all this, I am concerned that readers might think that walking the streets in India requires batting back one beggar after another. It really isn’t. Again, the beggars are professionals, so they hang out where the pickings are the best: around major tourist spots. If you are out of these areas in “normal” places, even very busy markets, encounters with aggressive beggars or touts are all but non-existent. We have found people in India to be very friendly and helpful as a rule. And walking through the markets is one of the great pleasures of India travel.

Photos above and below are from a Jain Temple in Mumbai

Dogs and Scooters

We had just landed and arranged our taxi. This is a matter of buying a ticket inside the terminal, then meeting the driver in a taxi stand in a multi-level parking deck. As we wee driving out, Barbara noticed that there were separate spaces for men’s and women’s scooter parking. As our driver pulled away, we saw a couple of dogs, one with three legs. They were sniffing, then marking, all of the scooters. They didn’t discriminate between the men’s and women’s scooters; they peed on everybody..

Posted January 10, 2017 by markrisjord in Uncategorized

Four days In Mumbai: Sketches Volume II   2 comments


Perhaps the most surprising thing about this trip to India was the proliferation of Christmas imagery and music. Christmas carols played everywhere: in the airplane, in the hotel lobby, in the shops. The IBIS hotel lobby sported both a Christmas tree and an enormous gingerbread house. In the Hotel Trevor Garden—The Colaba hotel where we spent most of our Mumbai days—had a “Merry Christmas” decoration right next to its “Happy Dewali” sign, and the staff all wished us a happy Christmas.

In retrospect, the visibility of Christmas shouldn’t have been so surprising. Christianity was present in India well before the Portuguese arrived in the 16th Century, perhaps as early as the first few centuries AD. The British built Christian holidays into the government and banking calendar. Moreover, India has a nicely ecumenical tradition of everybody getting a holiday on the important festival days of any one of the major religions. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of imagery was often striking.

This photo was taken among the stalls selling offerings outside the (Hindu) Mahalaxshmi Temple.  Look carefully at the left side…

The Christmas decorations highlighted something I had never noticed in India: five pointed stars are hung “upside down” here. Consider the photo below.

You’d think the star was just crooked, but all of the stars are hung this way, with the single point going down. I have no explanation for this…

The Holy Name Cathedral was a few blocks from our hotel in Colaba. According to web research, this Cathedral held a Christmas mass that was attended by as many as 3,000 people. A choir would sing for the first part of the service, followed by Mass. That sounded like something to see, so after having dinner at our favorite rooftop bar and restaurant, we walked over to the Cathedral.

Christmas Dinner at Cloud 9: Tandoori Mixed Grill and Biryani

We expected a big crowd scene on the narrow street outside of the Cathedral. But the street was clear, except for a steady stream of people walking toward the Cathedral. Everybody was in their best clothing, mostly saris but also western clothing. We followed the others down a side alley adjacent to the Cathedral. Here people were going into a back building or courtyard, from which we could hear the sound of carols. At this point we got a little uncomfortable. We felt a bit underdressed, and we didn’t want to get trapped with 3000 folks through the end of the mass. So, we backtracked and ducked into the Cathedral proper. It was quiet, with only a couple of worshipers in the pews. We could hear the singing, so we sat for a while. At one point, two men came in and took photos of each other in front of what looked like a creshe near the front of the church.

On closer examination, the box contained an image of Mary being visited by the Angel Gabriel.

The Cathedral is quite beautiful. For the most part, it adheres to global Christian conventions of architecture and iconography. There were a couple of interesting details. Ceiling fans hang over the pews. Painted decorations covered the walls, unlike the stark and somber stone of most European Cathedrals. The decorations were mostly trompe d’oeil patterns, creating the illusion of a textured wall.

The most interesting India variation on European Christian representational practice we saw was this copy of the Saint Mary of Perpetual Help icon.


We visited two Hindu temples in Mumbai: the Mumbadevi temple and the Mahalaxshmi temple. Hindu temples are easy for a non-Hindu to visit. The other worshipers tend to be quite tolerant (though no pictures are allowed inside, typically) and welcoming. Adopt a reverent attitude and nobody will bother you. Give a few coins to the priests, and you’ll come away with their blessings and a bindi on your forehead. One does have to be willing to take off one’s shoes and walk barefoot, perhaps for a long way, and often endure the crush of the crowd.

Mumbadevi is the diety from which Mumbai gets its name. She was worshiped by the fishermen who populated this peninsula. The temple is the in the middle of one of the big market areas. The streets are lined with shops with goods that spill out into piles on the street. The cab driver dropped us off at the head of a narrow alley and waived us in. As we got closer, there were stalls selling offerings for the temple, foods, and various devotional items. Each temple seems to have its preferred offering. Mumbadevi seemed to prefer flower garlands and sparkly scarves, while Mahalaxshmi apparently likes lilies and coconuts.

Outside of the Mumbadevi temple

When we entered the Mumbadevi temple, the entry opened onto a small courtyard. Around three sides there were more stalls selling temple goods. There was a line of worshipers waiting to approach the murti. Murti are the statues or images of the gods. They are awakened by the priests, often by putting flower garlands around them, coating them with colored butter, shining lights, etc., depending on the particular temple. Only once the murti is awakened can it be given offerings. In the Mumbadevi temple, we could stand in the courtyard and see the devotees make their offerings, so we didn’t join the line. Around us families sat or stood, either waiting to go forward or having just done so.

Mahalaxshmi was a much bigger and more popular temple. Apparently, these three sisters give blessings in the form of prosperity. Here we had to join the line of worshipers. There were separate lines for men and women. Once I got to the front, it was a frantic press. The worshipers would put their offerings before the murti and receive a blessing. Two priests cleared away the piles of offerings, dipped their fingers in a colored paste, and touched the forehead of those passing by.

Mumbai Street Scenes

Scaffolding made of wooden poles lashed together with rope is quite common.  And scary.

What do you mean you haven’t heard of the Famous Steel Centre?

Posted December 31, 2016 by markrisjord in Uncategorized