Elizabeth Block Pottery

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
Home Blog

News and Travels

E-mail Print PDF



I'm not doing craft shows any more. Been there, done that. I'm still happy to fill orders.

And for something totally unrelated, you can see and hear me singing three songs about nature, in the Toronto Field Naturalists' 90th anniversary celebration.  Go to www.torontofieldnaturalists.org.  Look for "TFN for All Seasons."  Click on the video.  I am at (I think) 15 minutes; 57 minutes; and 1:18 minutes.  The songs are: David Francey's "Redwinged Blackbird," "God Bless the Birds" (tune by Malvina Reynolds, words by me), and Howard Kaplan's solstice song, "Long is the Winter till the Sun's Return."  The rest of the show is fun, too.  If you can't find the link on the TFN website, ask me for it.

A Thought-Experiment for Jews: What if Canada were a Christian State?

Suppose Canada were a Christian state in the same way Israel is a Jewish state.

Let's say you work in Toronto, but housing is too expensive, as it may well be, since 93% of the land is reserved for Christians, and naturally there is great pressure on the remaining 7%. You want to live in Oakville or Barrie or Oshawa and commute. You can't. Those places are Christians-only. You could apply to live there, but communities are allowed to screen potential residents for ethnical compatibility. You wouldn't have a chance.

Let's say you actually own your own home and the land it is built on. (And you have the documents to prove it!  But you have children, now grown and married or expecting to be married, who can't find a place to live. Build them a house on your land? Build an extension on your house? You need a permit, and you're not going to get it. Christians almost always get their building permits.

If you are a farmer, or even a gardener, there are limits on what you are allowed to grow. You are not allowed to produce anything that might compete with Christian farmers. For instance, you may not be allowed to grow eggplants within a few metres of your home. If you want to run a dairy farm, your cows could be declared a threat to national security and confiscated.

And the military can, at any time, declare your land to be a closed military zone, and keep you off it. If you don't work your land for three years, it reverts to the state, at which point it will be handed over to Christians to build a subdivision.

As for water, your Christian neighbours can dig a well any time they like. You can't. If someone has filled in your well, tough luck, you can't repair it. You have a water tank on your roof. You're lucky if someone hasn't shot it full of holes.

A Christian wants to buy your land, but you don't want to sell? Armed Christians just might barge in, force you out on the street, and keep it. The government won't stop them. In fact, it encourages them. It will send in soldiers to protect them. There are places in Canada where you had better not leave your house with no one in it, even for a few hours, for fear that this will happen.

You don't live or work in Toronto, but you'd like to go there from time to time, to shop and go to theatre and concerts. You can't. Not without a special permit, which you are extremely unlikely to get.

You do live in Toronto, but are married to someone from somewhere else. You want to bring your spouse to live with you? You have to apply for status for your him or her. This can take years, even decades. You must also apply for status for your children. Until and unless they get it, they get no government services, including medical care and the right to go to school.

Even though you pay the same taxes, you don't get the full range of ordinary government services - water at full volume 24/7, garbage pickup, mail delivery, street repair - that Christians get.

Jews can't join the military, while all Christians are drafted. This is a serious matter, because there are a lot of jobs, government services, even bank loans you can't get if you aren't a veteran.

Christian schools get several times the amount of funding as Jewish (or any other) schools. In fact, there are a lot of Jewish children who aren't in school at all, because there is no space for them. The government controls the curriculum, and the police vet the teachers, principals, even the janitors. They recruit children to report on their teachers.

In some places schoolchildren, even kindergarteners, have to to through checkpoints to get to and from school. In others, they are regularly attacked by Christians on their way to and from school. The army is supposed to protect them. Sometimes soldiers show up, sometimes they don't, sometimes they attack the children.

Just about anywhere you want to go, even in Jewish neighbourhoods, you have to go through checkpoints. You might be let through or you might not. You might be held there for hours. You might be humiliated - in fact, you probably will be - or beaten up. Christians sail through.

You can't drive on the 401 or any of the 400 highways, or their equivalents in other provinces. Those are for Christians only. How can they tell? Different coloured license plates. You can't even ride on them as a passenger. This means, of course, that what should be a short journey becomes a long,roundabout one.

Travel outside the country is no problem for Christians. But you have to apply for permission. If it is granted, you'll be strip-searched at the airport, a search which includes body cavities.This includes children and babies.

The law gives you no protection. Jews whose land is taken, land to which they can prove ownership, sometimes go to court, but even if they win, the judgment isn't enforced. They don't get their land back, and they don't get compensation.

Soldiers, police officers, and even ordinary Christians attack, beat up, shoot, and even kill Jews, with or without a reason, and are almost never punished. When what they do is so egregious, like the massacre of dozens of people at prayer in a synagogue, be prepared for Christians to revere them as saints.

Jews in some parts of Canada are governed by military law, which means that if they are charged with a crime (which includes a gathering of ten people), even if they are children, they go to military court. The conviction rate there is 99.7%.

If you are arrested you may well be tortured. This also includes children. The Supreme Court has outlawed torture except in "cases of necessity," but has left it up to the government to decide when it is necessary.

Leading politicians, even cabinet ministers, talk openly about expelling all Jews. They call Jewish babies "demographic threats."

You are liable to be arrested and imprisoned indefinitely, without being charged, let alone tried (or convicted). Offenses include participating in unarmed protests, which are regularly met with violence, sometimes lethal violence, from the army and police. Canada has officially abolished the death penalty, but you could be on the receiving end of a "targeted civil elimination."

In short: In this Christian state, to borrow the words in the Dred Scott decision, you as a Jew have no rights that any Christian is bound to respect.


The Giraffe Award

The Giraffe Award was created, years ago, for the late Nancy Pocock, for sticking her neck out. (The government had told her to stop helping Central American refugees. She went right on doing it.) The actual award, a sculpted giraffe, was made by Carol Showler Lee, daughter of Frank Showler who is well known to Toronto activists. Its present holder is Matthew Behrens, activist extraordinaire.

I made another one, in the expectation that a suitable recipient would show up. Here it is.

Some weeks ago I read about the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. They are a group of (mostly) African Americans in Alabama, fighting a local corporation which has polluted their community with a toxic coal ash dump. I thought they were sticking their necks out (the corporation has sued them!), and with the support of the rest of the Peace and Social Action Committee of Toronto Quaker Meeting, I sent them the Giraffe Award, together with a small donation. Check them out: www.blackbeltcitizens.wix.com.

Family Stories

Here are some stories that I hope will amuse you. I may be the only person who knows them! (I also have plans to record, and put up on YouTube, a few of my father's songs which I also may be the only person still alive who knows them.) In no particular order:

Sanitary Napkins: In, I think, 1938, my mother, Frances Bildersee, was traveling in Britain with her parents, and went into a chemist's shop (a drugstore to us) to buy some. Now at this time, any mention of feminine hygiene products was very embarrassing, especially if you were young (she was nineteen). And she didn't know that in Britain they were called sanitary towels. When she asked for sanitary napkins, the sales clerk replied, "Meddam, all our nepkins are senitry."

Grandma Sal: My maternal grandmother was born in Georgia, and I don't mean in the Caucasus. Her family moved north in, I think, 1893, to get away from yellow fever. She went to P.S. [Public School] 9, Manhattan, where many years later my father would be assistant principal. On her first day, she was sent down to the principal's office for refusing to sing Marching Through Georgia. She was a tough broad, even at age 10.

When my cousin Adele was a suburban housewife in Long Island, she invited Grandma Sal to luncheon, where she met some of Adele's friends. One of them remarked that she spoke English very well, almost as well as if she had been born here. (Most of these young women had grandparents who were born in Europe, of course.) Grandma was greatly amused.

She died aged 99 years and 9 months. She told my cousin Bob, who was visiting her in a nursing home in Florida, that she wasn't going to live to 100 because if she did, she would get a congratulatory letter from President Reagan. Like I said, a tough broad.

Impunct on the Pizzarinctum: Grandma Sal's sister, my aunt (actually great-aunt) Gertrude, was sharp, but not always the soul of tact. (Did I inherit this trait?) One day - this would have been in the 1930s or 40s, I think - she was at her doctor's. The man who left just before she went in to see the doctor was someone she knew slightly, so she said to her doctor, "I just saw Mr. So-and-so leaving. What's the matter with him?"

The doctor said, "He has an impunct on the pizzarinctum."

Now, how did this get to be a family story? Aunt Gertrude asked around the family to find out what is an impunct on the pizzarinctum! She didn't realize that the doctor was telling her to mind her own business.

"Who's Hannah?"

My mother had two brothers. Barnett was called Bones, because he was skinny as a child. (Not when I knew him!) Max hated his name, and went by Pat; his wife, Hannah, also hated her name, and was called Bunny. At least as far as anyone in the family knew.

One day Bones's wife, my wonderful Aunt Ada, was at a function of the sort where you wear name tags. A woman she didn't know got talking to her, and after a while asked, "How's Hannah?"

"Who's Hannah?"

"Uh, Max's wife."

"Who's Max?"

At this point the woman, embarrassed, said that since her last name, Bildersee, was so unusual (it is indeed; if you ever meet a Bildersee they are probably my kin) she figured she must be related to Hannah and Max Bildersee.

"Oh, you mean Pat and Bunny!" Explanations ensued.

When Ada got home, she was talking to her husband, and said, "By the way, how's Hannah?"

"Who's Hannah?"

"You know, Max's wife."

"Who's Max?"

Then he phoned his mother, who of course was Max's mother and Hannah's mother-in-law.

"By the way, how's Hannah?"

"Who's Hannah?"

"You know, Max's wife."

"Who's Max?"

It went all around the family, and after that we would often refer to Pat and Bunny as Max and Hannah.

Are You a Christian? Here's something that happened to me.

In 1968, I think, I was traveling in England, partly walking, partly hitchhiking. You could do that then! On a rainy Sunday I found myself in Plymouth, where I saw the sights, such as they were (e.g. the Eddystone Lighthouse, renowned in song). At five o'clock I went back to the youth hostel (there were lots of them then) where I had left my pack. It was full. I shouldered my pack and headed for a town a few miles away where the youth hostel had space.

On my way, I was greeted by a man who told me that he was a Christian, on his way to a place of worship. "Are you a Christian?" he asked. I said no. He said, "I suppose you have a good reason for that." I said yes. He didn't ask me what it was! He started an evangelical spiel, which I cut short, suggesting he not waste his time. He apologized, said he hoped I wasn't offended - I wasn't, he meant well! - and took his leave of me, giving me his blessing and saying, "Remember - put your hand in the hand of the man, as your generation says."

I thought it was funny then. I still think it was funny.

In the 1930s, my grandfather, Isaac Bildersee, was superintendent of a school district in Brooklyn. He issued an edict forbidding - wait for it - the compulsory singing of religious Christmas carols in the schools in his district. For this he was attacked, on the radio, by no less a personage than Kate Smith.
You may have heard the saying, "It isn't over until the fat lady sings." Kate Smith was the fat lady.


Palestine (and Israel), March 2016

In March 2016 I went to Palestine for two weeks as part of a Christian Peacemaker Team. You don't have to be Christian! Who knew? We were in East Jerusalem; Hebron; Bethlehem; and we spent a night in Susiya. I saw places, and met people, that I have been reading about for years.

A few general impressions: The Palestinians we met are the lucky and the strong. They are still alive, and they are still there, so far. And they are trying, with considerable success, to bring up their children in an atmosphere of normality.

I had no trouble with immigration at Ben Gurion. The man asked if I was with a group: no (not yet, anyway), and what I was going to do. See the country, I said (which country, I didn't say), and go birdwatching. All true. One member of our delegation did get questioned -- coming in, going out, and when he landed at Kennedy. Why? He's a young man, the target demographic. Israelis are just as much stereotypers as anyone else.

In Jerusalem we stayed in a hostel in the Old City, off a corridor full of shops of all kinds, near the Damascus Gate. Not luxurious, but comfortable, with breakfast food provided, and hospitable owners, and a roof with a view (and a clothesline).

My first day I went to the Garden Tomb, full of pilgrims (I went there for the birds!), and then walked up Hanevim [Prophets] Street to a hostel, where I got some information about other hostels. It wasn't very far, but what I didn't realize was that it was all uphill. Jerusalem is horribly hilly; so is Hebron. I carried on to the Jerusalem Bird Sanctuary, in a park near the Knesset. It's very small but very nice; there's a blind, a little pool, and other birders who told me what I was seeing. But getting back to the hostel was another thing! It was Friday, and public transit shuts down for the Sabbath at about 3:00 in the Jewish part of Jerusalem. I finally found a taxi who was willing, for a good price, to take me. No tip.

Saturday we went to El Areqib, a Bedouin village which has now been demolished for the 100th time. Why? The Israelis -- the Israeli Jews (for the Bedouin too are Israeli citizens) -- want the land.

The village is just tents -- large, substantial tents, but tents. When the bulldozers come the people hide in the graveyard, which hasn't been desecrated (yet). Since 1999, the village and its land have been sprayed with Roundup, destroying plants, sheep, horses, and people -- there have been deaths, miscarriages, cancer attributed to the chemical. We saw stumps of olive trees that are putting forth shoots.

Before 2010, they had electricity. Since then, there have been dozens of court cases, some criminal. The government is demanding two million shekels for destroying their houses. Since 2014, the government has demanded 5,000 shekels per person per day for staying there. If they leave, there will be no charges, legal or monetary.

The people who spoke to us were Abou Aziz, and his son Aziz. Our guide and translator was Amos Gvirtz, whom I have heard speak in Toronto, at Beit Zatoun. He told us that during Kristallnacht, there were shops and houses belonging to Christians that were [collaterally] damaged, and the German government got Jewish insurance companies to pay for the damage.  How ironic, he said that the victim has to pay the oppressor to oppress him. Later (August 1st, 2016), he wrote, in Occupation Magazine, after El Areqib had been demolished for the hundredth time, "They came to an 'empty land' and 'made the desert bloom.' And if the country isn't empty, they empty it. And if there is no desert they create one, and afterwards make it bloom again!"

The Bedouin used to be patriotic. The voted for the government. They joined the army! (voluntarily, they aren't drafted). Now there's a special police unit, Yoav, that deals with the Bedouin.

Sunday we met with Ruth, from ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions), a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. She took us around Jerusalem to see house demolitions, Jewish settlements, unequal provision of government services, e.g. garbage collection. Here is a demolished house.

And here is part of a wall the Israelis built, blocking a 4000-year-old road between Jerusalem and Jericho.

Why is the West Bank still occupied? (1) It is higher in altitude, and height means control, (2) water -- most of the aquifers are in the West Bank, in fact beneath Jewish settlements, (3) religion -- most of the important Biblical sites are in the West Bank.

Ruth reviewed the history of the Occupation, and the abortive attempts at a settlement. In 2010 there was a "settlement freeze" -- except for completing buildings whose foundations were already laid, and since there were six months' grace, lots of foundations were laid in those six months. Then Israel demanded that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state. They keep making new demands, ones which they know will be refused.

Abbas and Peres met for a year, agreed on crucial issues such as refugees and the status of Jerusalem. But Netanyahu refused to meet with Abbas and make it official. John Kerry's efforts totally collapsed.

In 1967, Palestinians in Jerusalem had to choose between citizenship or permanent residency status. Now they have to keep proving that Jerusalem is the centre of their life, which is made difficult. There is a new citizenship law, but only for Palestinians. And many laws are published only in Hebrew, even in the West Bank.

Palestinians in Jerusalem have to buy water from private companies, and the pressure is kept low to make sure Jews have plenty. They have tanks on their roofs. We were told that water supplied for Jews could be trusted to be drinkable, but in Palestinian areas, either boil it or drink bottled water.

(Later, I read Sayed Kashua's book "Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life," in which he writes about what a shock it was, after he moved to West Jerusalem, that there was plenty of water, not just a trickle that might stop at any time! no power blackouts! garbage was actually picked up, three times a week! that mail was delivered to the house, he didn't have to have a post office box! that fast food restaurants delivered! people from the phone company, gas, water, cable TV would arrive as scheduled, they didn't say "Entry into your area has to be coordinated with the police." All the streets were paved, and "next to them are lanes for pedestrians, called sidewalks.")

Punitive demolitions -- house demolitions to punish families of people accused of terrorist attacks -- stopped from 2005 to 2014. Then they started "sealing" houses, i.e. filling them up with concrete. (Owners still have to pay property taxes.)  Studies have shown that demolitions don't deter attacks.

Then there are military and administrative demolitions, of homes built without a permit, which is almost never granted, especially if there is no plan in place for the area, which mostly there isn't. Excuses include building on a slope. In Jerusalem!

Demolition orders -- 22,000 of them across Jerusalem -- are issued with no date. People don't know when, or if, they will be executed. They sometimes demolish the house themselves, because if the government does it they will have to pay, a lot.

Ruth told us that cops in Ferguson, Missouri were trained by the Israeli army. Not police, army.

She reminded us that the Geneva Conventions say that occupied peoples have the right to resist by force, so long as they attack military targets.

And Ruth said she doesn't use the word "genocide" to describe what is going on now. She is saving it for when it actually starts.

Later, on the Jerusalem LRT, a couple of us got talking to an Israeli army officer (from the U.S., New Jersey, I think), who said that the Bedouins and the Druze "love us." A few days after that, there was a news story about a major in the Israeli army who had received a notice that his house was to be demolished. He wasn't Jewish, of course. He was a Bedouin.

On Monday we went to Yad Vashem, where we had an excellent guided tour, with a woman who is with Zochrot ("remembering" in Hebrew). These are the people who put up signs with the Arabic names of streets and villages, and do other things as well, to keep the memory alive of what happened to the Palestinians in 1948. (Another guide called her a self-hating Jew.)

Then we were briefed by Gerard Horton, of Military Court Watch. I have since read what Jo Cox, the murdered British MP, said about the treatment of Palestinian children, and it sounded like she had much the same briefing.

Military Court Watch has twelve lawyers. They don't actually defend children in military courts; this would (a) be providing, free, services that the army should provide, and (b) make the courts look like legitimate instruments of justice.

He called military courts the "Mechanics of Occupation." Since 1967, some 760,000 people have been detained, for offences that include a gathering of more than ten people.

The army's job is to protect the 400,000 Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories, and they have done it very well, with collective punishment and mass intimidation.

When stones are thrown, they round up the usual suspects, boys from ten to thirteen. Every village has an intelligence officer, so they know who these boys are. Arrest the wrong child? It doesn't matter. The point is not to punish the guilty, but to punish the village. Make them suspect each other, destroy trust.  And it works.

The army will finger someone who is non-political, making him look like an informer. Or they will spray skunk water in the windows of non-protesters, which makes them angry at neighbours who do protest.

Children are blindfolded, handcuffed, taken away to … somewhere. After many hours, they are interrogated. Physical abuse isn't usually necessary; threats and shouting will suffice to extract a confession, true or false. The children have the right to remain silent, but even in the unlikely event that they are told of it, they may be hit or threatened with rape if they don't answer questions. There is no parent present, of course, no lawyer. If they do get a lawyer it will be later, at trial, and the lawyer will advise them to plead guilty even if they are innocent. The conviction rate is 99.77%.  (In ancient Israel, when the Sanhedrin - the court - came to a unanimous ruling, it was thrown out, because they figured it could only have been reached by means of bribery and corruption.)

Kids are asked to sign a confession, in Hebrew, which they cannot read. Soldiers generally speak Arabic, but don't write it. The confession may, or may not, say what the kid actually said in Arabic.

Children are transferred to prisons in Israel, which is a war crime according to the Geneva Conventions. (This Convention was adopted unanimously because of what the Nazis did.) The Israelis have done this to 7000-8000 people every year for 49 years.

If we persistently ignore Israel's war crimes, what do we say to Putin and China?

After Military Court Watch sent a letter to foreign diplomatic missions, the number of children transferred to Israeli prisons dropped from 56% to 38%. There has been no drop in adult transfers, which still number 90%.

When children are released, they are damaged. A spell in an Israeli prison is sometimes called a Palestinian bar mitzvah. But while the kid feels like a hero at first, what then? Their parents can be fined up to 7000 shekels, which can bankrupt a family.

Military Court Watch's recommendations:

(1) No night-time raids, which terrorize children and their families. Issue a summons.

(2) Inform children of their rights, including the right to remain silent.

(3) A lawyer before interrogation.

(4) Parents present during interrogation.

(5) Videotape interrogations!

(6) If any of these things aren't done, release the child.

Military Court Watch's work is about rule of law. It is aimed at other countries, the UN, NGOs. Child detention is very sensitive, and can delegitimize Israel's rule over the West Bank. As Chris Hedges said, "A society is in serious trouble when its political pariahs have at the core of their demands a return to the rule of law."

Gerard Horton summarized the success of this policy: In 30, years, 13,000 have been killed on both sides, which is very light. Well worth it. It damages Israel's international reputation, but otherwise not a problem, not for the Palestinian Authority, certainly not for Israel.

After this, we went to the Western Wall, which I have to say I found underwhelming. What I liked best were (surprise!) watching the birds -- swifts -- flying around and occasionally darting between stones of the wall, where they clearly had nests. Then we took a bus to Bethlehem, where we stayed at the Bethlehem Bible College. (Yes, there are Palestinian Christians. Fewer than there used to be; they are treated much the same as the Muslims.)

From there we went to Hebron, where we stayed at the Christian Peacemaker Teams apartment, cooking most of our own meals. I took far too many pictures in the market -- the fruits and vegetables were so beautiful! Somewhat Spartan -- and it was very cold while we were there! -- but right in the Old City, which is under huge pressure from the Jews, who want to take it over. We saw the nets, and the plastic tarps, above the shops in the Old City, put there to catch the stuff, solid and sometimes liquid, which the settlers throw down. Here's a graffito, and an alley in the Old City that used to be the entrance to a home, and a sign saying the Old City is forbidden to Jews. What it doesn't say is that it was the Israeli government, not the Palestinians, who forbade it.

From the roof of our apartment we could see Shuhada Street, which used to be a main commercial road. It is now open only to settlers -- the settlement of Kiryat Arba is across the street and up the hill. We sometimes saw settlers jogging along Shuhada Street -- carrying assault rifles. The many shops on the street are welded shut, and some have been looted; and Palestinians have to go around the long (very long) way.

We did a lot of School Watches, going to checkpoints and monitoring how many children go through, how many adults, any trouble, reporting arrests to UN Child Arrest. Sometimes stones are thrown; sometimes border police respond with force. This must be the only place in the world where children are tear-gassed on the way to school. (Isn't that an attack on academic freedom?)

We really liked escorting kindergarten children to and from school (being a "walking school bus").  The are soooo cute! They have to take a rough, rocky path (harder on the grownups than the kids!), which runs next to a smooth paved path, with steps. That path is for settlers only.

We visited the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, who told us about their work. Kiryat Arba started in 1968, when Israelis rented a room for Passover and wouldn't leave. There are six settlements inside Hebron. Shuhada Street should have been opened, according to the Oslo Accord. The U.S. promised that it would be. But it's not. 1829 shops have closed, one-third by military order, two-thirds because they couldn't make a living.

There have been 148 deaths since September 2015, mostly along the settlement route, and most under age 17. Palestinian ambulances aren't allowed to treat victims, and sometimes settlers block them. Israeli ambulances take a long time coming. (This was before the notorious killing, by an army medic (!), of a young Palestinian who was already lying badly injured and disabled on the street, which wouldn't have hit the Western media if it hadn't been videoed by someone with a cellphone camera.)

At one point the leader of our delegation heard gunfire, went up to the roof, and saw settlers pouring out of the nearby settlement and dancing around the body. The Occupation may be bringing benefits to settlers, but it is destroying Judaism.

We were given a tour of the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque by a local journalist. It is very old, quite beautiful, especially a very, very old pulpit. And there are still bullet holes from Baruch Goldstein's terrorist attack.

We visited Hani, who lives in Tel Rumeida, a part of Hebron where the people are under heavy pressure to sell out to the settlements, and have to go through checkpoints to get anywhere. He won't sell. He has held out through terrible harassment. He can't bring anything in by car; he has to carry everything, including his wife when she was about to give birth. His olive trees have been poisoned (by Agent Orange?) -- something that killed them overnight. His wife and daughter went to the dentist that day. They passed through three checkpoints, were held up at the fourth by an Israeli boy who said they didn't live there!

He hasn't always practiced nonviolence, but has for twenty years. He has had some victories, which impressed the neighbours. Once he was detained at a checkpoint on a Friday. He organized a meal in the street, holding up the settlers' cars. And once he overheard a soldier say he wanted to shoot him, but the soldier's officer said no, he's too old.

We went to Al Tuwani and visited Operation Dove. This is a village in the South Hebron Hills, threatened by a nearby settlement. But it has a Master Plan -- very rare! -- which stopped it from being demolished.  Settlers here are vicious. They attack school children on the way to and from school -- soldiers are supposed to escort them, but sometimes they don't bother to show up. Internationals are on call when that happens; they have been attacked too. Parents are determined that their children be educated.

Settlers have destroyed cisterns, poisoned wells. (Don't these people know the history of the Jews? how we used to be accused of poisoning wells? and now they do it.) 18% of the West Bank is designated a firing zone, where people are evicted, roads are closed, shepherds can't pasture their flocks, farmers can't plant or harvest. A bypass road cuts through villagers' land.

From there we went to Susiya. You may have heard of this village.  The people were removed from the original village of Susiya in 1968. Their old homes were demolished, the army built a wall around the old village, and settlers moved in. Most people are under demolition orders. So is the school. People are living in tents. The women do stunningly beautiful embroidery.

This land belongs to them, and they have tried to use the law to keep it. But the Israelis want to take it, to connect nearby settlements with each other. And the judge hearing the case lives in a settlement! A settlement that's illegal under Israeli law. (Settlements are "legalized" two months after Israelis move in.)

We stayed overnight, were fed delicious food, and treated royally. I got up early in the morning and saw a hoopoe! a small but spectacular bird, golden tan body, black and white striped wings, tail, and crest. One of the birds you want to see here. Google it.

There are tarps over the tents, held down against the wind by bags full of stones. (Some tents were destroyed in a snowstorm. Yup, there's snow here.) Some of the bags say "a gift from the Government of Canada." Nice.

Back to Hebron, to the Hebron International Resources Network. They are trying to rehab a kindergarten, and working on other small projects. They do micro stuff, leave macro to the nations. Hamid told us that settlers are tunnelling under a mosque, same as at Al-Ibrahimi.

We met a family who are living between settlements, constantly harassed, including their young daughters. And we saw a yeshiva, Beit Romano, where the bottom storey was a Palestinian school. The settlers took it over. How did they do that? Well, it's a school. No one is there at night, so they just walked in and refused to leave, and soldiers came to protect them. This is the top, the yeshiva; I didn't get a photo which includes the bottom, the old school. But here's a link to one: http://imemc.org/article/65397-2/

We visited the Al Jabari family, who have a house and a farm across from Kiryat Arba, where settlers have come, more than once, and built an (illegal) "temporary" synagogue on their farmland. When the settlers first came, they advised him to leave, and gave him a quote from the Bible and a blank cheque. His land connects the settlements and the Al-Ibrahimi mosque.

He doesn't want to sell! He plants, but settlers burn the crops, and the trees. Now he harvests before the crops are ripe.

In Bethlehem we went to the Lajee Centre in the Aida [pronounced Ida] refugee camp, where we were shown around by Nadal. The camp has been there since 1948, and is way overcrowded, with 5500 refugees, half of them kids. The UN rented the land for 99 years! At first people lived in tents, then small houses, now solid houses. UN-run services have been cut 80% since 1994. No clinic, crowded schools, public hospitals are lousy. The camp is a target for night invasions. The soccer field is tear-gassed. In 2000 the camp was invaded by tanks and helicopters. (This is right in the middle of Bethlehem.) The centre runs music, dance, media, water testing programs. There are lots of wall paintings, including a list of children who have been killed. Atop the wall is a huge key, symbolizing the keys that many refugees still have to their old homes. (Later, I learned that when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many of them kept the keys to their old homes. And recently the Spanish government invited any of them who still had their keys to return to Spain. Eight families accepted the invitation.)

We went to the Tent of Nations, the home of Daoud Nasr, whose family has owned the land since 1916, and (a rare thing!) has registered it. It's on a hilltop, surrounded by five settlements, also on hills, and they want it.

His grandfather lived in a cave when he came to work on the land. The cave is still there, and since it's not a structure, it cannot be demolished. The court battles over it are unending. Settlers have destroyed 250 olive and fruit trees. [There's a biblical verse forbidding this!]

The Nasrs are Christians, and their actions are faith-based.They are off the grid, because they aren't allowed on it. No power? Solar panels. Water? Rain water is collected in cisterns. Biogas from compost. They want to build a school, teach nonviolence, perhaps in collaboration with Christian Peacemaker Teams.

I have learned a Hebrew word, from the story of Naboth, who had a vineyard that King Ahab wanted. When Naboth wouldn't sell, Ahab had him killed. Naboth says, "God forbid I should sell my nahala." It means something like patrimony, inheritance, but one that isn't yours to sell -- land with which you have an intergenerational covenant. This is what the owners of the Tent of Nations feel about their land -- it's not theirs to sell -- and probably other people we met as well. Clearly, it goes back in Jewish history, and present-day Jews ought to understand it.

Back in Jerusalem we went to hear two men from Combatants for Peace. The Jew had been a soldier. The Palestinian, at age 16, had been the best stone-thrower in his village. Neither had started as practitioners of nonviolence.

The Jew told about patrolling in the south Hebron Hills, chasing Palestinians who were vandalizing the wall. They caught a 12-year-old boy, whom his captain kicked as if he were a football. When they went to handcuff him, the cuffs were too big. Are they combat soldiers or babysitters? A police force for people who don't want them, sent by a government they didn't elect, with no checks to their power, needing no warrant for a strip search or a home invasion.

He finished his army service as a lieutenant, realizing that what he had been taught was not the reality he saw as a soldier. He said that cops who beat up Ethiopian or Sephardi students, because they are dark-skinned, practiced on Palestinians.

The Palestinian is a member of Bereaved Families; he lost three people. His family came from a village near Hebron, to which they fled in 1948, all except his grandfather, who stayed in his village and was killed there. His family bought land near Gush Etzion and farmed it, but always wanted to go back. In 1967 they fled again, to Jordan, where he was born in 1971. They went back to Daheishe refugee camp.He threw stones in the First Intifada. Was wanted by the IDF for 5 years, arrested 15 times. When the IDF besieged the camp, setting an all-night curfew, his brother was killed, with a dum-dum bullet [forbidden under international law], breaking curfew. His mother has mourned ever since.

What do Combatants for Peace do? Try to get Israelis to be more aware of the Occupation. Monthly demo in the West Bank. Rebuild houses.

As a soldier, the Jew said, he hated checkpoint watches, like CPT's. Now he appreciates that witness equals deterrence.

Is there no law for the IDF? he was asked. No, he said. I was the sheriff.

We did some things for fun, too. We went to a glass and ceramic factory and watched glassblowing and men (all men!) painting designs on greenware; and a kaffiyah factory, I think the only one left in Palestine, where we watched the looms working and bought kaffiyahs. And I took far too many pictures of produce in the market, because it was so beautiful.

And of course I looked at birds. City birds: Pigeons and House Sparrows (of course). Laughing Doves, so called for their call, something like our mourning doves. Eurasian Collared Doves. Hooded Crows. Common (I think) Swifts. Mynahs, seen in pairs; white flashes on their wings when they fly made me think of mockingbirds. European Jays. In gardens, White-Spectacled Bulbuls, Palestine Sunbirds.

I stayed on a few more days so I could go to a Birding Festival in Eilat. It was migration season, and one day we went into the mountains and watched hundreds, maybe thousands, of raptors streaming north -- kites, buzzards, black storks, eagles, harriers. I saw another hoopoe, in Eilat, and lots of wagtails, which I think are my favourite European birds.

One taxi driver in Eilat told me that Palestinians are slobs -- they leave garbage all over the place. I should have thought to mention that if you have no garbage collection, it's kind of hard not to do that. And that I know two songs about littering, both more than half a century old, both, alas, relevant today. One is set in England, the other in Brooklyn. Everybody litters!

A postscript: I usually wear a button that says "Jews Against the Occupation." A year or so ago a woman in a supermarket noticed it, asked me about it, and finally said, "Why can't they just get along?" I replied, "Because the Jews want all of the land with none of the people, and they believe -- with good reason -- that they can get it."

P.S. I've just read "The Way to the Spring," by Ben Ehrenreich. If you're going to read one book about Palestine, that should be the one. I saw and met some of the places and people he writes about.


Here's a "thought-experiment" I wrote, to imagine what Canada would be like for Jews if it were a Christian state in the same way that Israel is a Jewish state.

Let’s say you work in Toronto, but housing is too expensive, as it may well be, since 93% of the land is reserved for Christians, and naturally there is great pressure on the remaining 7%. You want to live in Oakville or Oshawa or Barrie, and commute.
You can’t. Those places are only for Christians. You could apply to live there, but these communities are allowed to screen potential residents for ethnic compatibility. You wouldn’t have a chance.
Let’s say you actually own your own home, and the land it is built on. And you have the documents to prove it! But you have children, grown up, married or expecting to be married, and they can’t find a place to live. Build them a house on your land? Build an extension on your house? You need a permit, and you’re not going to get it. Christians almost always get their building permits.
If you are a farmer, or even a gardener, there are limits on what you can grow. You aren’t allowed to produce anything that might compete with Christian farmers. For instance, you may not be allowed to grow eggplants within a few metres of your house. If you want to run a dairy farm, your cows may be declared a threat to national security and confiscated.
And the military can, at any time, declare your land to be a closed military zone and keep you off it. If you don’t work your land for three years, it reverts to the state, at which point it will be handed over to Christians to build a subdivision - for Christians only, of course.
As for water, your Christian neighbours can dig wells any time they like. You can’t. If someone has filled in your well, tough luck, you can’t repair it. You have a water tank on the roof. You’re lucky if someone hasn’t shot it full of holes.
A Christian wants to buy your house, but you don’t want to sell? Armed Christians might just barge in, take it over, and force you out on the street. The government won’t stop them; in fact, it encourages them. It will send in soldiers to protect them. There are places in Canada where you had better not leave your house with no one in it, even for a few hours, for fear that this will happen.
You live in Toronto but are married to someone from somewhere else. You want to bring your spouse to live with you? You have to apply for status for him or her. This can take years, even decades. You must also apply for status for your children. Until they get it, they are not entitled to any government services, including health care and school.
Even though you pay the same taxes, you don’t get the full range of government services: water at full volume 24/7, garbage pickup, mail delivery and street repair that Christians get.
Jews can’t join the military, while Christians are drafted. This is a serious matter, because there are jobs, government services, and even bank loans that you won’t get unless you are a veteran.
Christian schools get several times the amount of funding as Jewish (or any other) schools. In fact, there are thousands of Jewish children who can’t go to school – there’s no room for them.
The government controls the curriculum, and the police vet the teachers, principals, even the janitors for their political views. They recruit children to report on their teachers.
In some places schoolchildren, even kindergarteners, have to go through checkpoints on their way to and from school. In others they are regularly attacked by Christians on the road to school. The army is supposed to protect them. Sometimes soldiers show up, sometimes they don’t.
Just about anywhere you go, even in Jewish areas, you have to go through checkpoints. You might be let through or you might not. You might be held there for hours. You might be treated with contempt –or even beaten up. Christians sail through.
You are not permitted to drive on most major highways. Christians have one colour license plate, Jews and others have another, so the cops can tell.
Travel outside the country is no problem for Christians. But you have to apply for permission. If granted, you’ll be strip-searched at the airport, a search which includes body cavities. This includes children and babies.
Jews in some parts of Canada are governed by military law, which means that if they are charged with a crime (which includes a gathering of more than ten people) they are tried in military court. The conviction rate there is 99.7%.
Children are not exempt from torture. The Supreme Court has outlawed torture, except in “cases of necessity,” and has left it to the government to decide when it is necessary.
You are liable to be arrested and imprisoned indefinitely, without being charged, let alone tried (or convicted). Offenses include participation in unarmed protests, which are regularly met with violence, sometimes lethal violence, from the army and the police.
In short: In this Christian state, to borrow the words in the Dred Scott decision, you as a Jew have no rights that any Christian is bound to respect.




College Reunion, Spring 2015

No travel off the continent this year - at least, not so far - but I went to my 50th (!) college reunion. I had a wonderful time. At the commencement procession I carried this sign. It was very well received, and not only by my fellow geezers - by the class of 2015 as well.







Spain, April 2014

I speak a little Spanish – not fluently by any means, but much better than nothing. And I had never been to Spain before.

The first week was an organized birdwatching tour. Last year in England, I joined the RSPB – the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – and in the back pages of their newsletters there are ads for quite a few companies that offer birding and nature tours. I figured I don’t know the country, and I don’t know the birds. Good decision – if I had been by myself, with binoculars and bird book, I would have seen very little, and identified even less.

For a full account, see the Ornitholidays website. Our tour isn’t up yet, but last year’s, in the same places, is there. I will just say that we went to two national parks, Monfragüe and Doñana, and saw lots of beautiful birds. Monfragüe has spectacular scenery and lots of raptors; Doñana is on the south Atlantic coast, and has lots of water birds and shore birds.

And oh yes, I learned that "twitcher" does not mean a British birdwatcher.  It means a British birder in frantic pursuit of a sighting of a particularly rare and interesting bird (called a "twitch").  Where did the term come from?  Who knows?

I took only a few photos of birds, large and cooperative ones. Here are storks on the roof of a church, and a Griffon Vulture.  I took too many photos – everyone does, these days! – not only of tourist attractions, but of things I saw on the street.

At the end of the week we went to Seville, where the other birders (all Brits) flew home, and I went to a hostel in central Seville. It offered walking tours, which were quite good. (I learned that Guad – as in Guadalquivir and Guadiana, two major rivers – is Arabic for “river.” Think of “wadi,” a usually dry watercourse.) The hostel was within walking distance of most of the touristy things, including the cathedral and the Alcázar, which was wonderful. It is built around a mosque, which is still there, and has wonderful gardens.

Our guide told us the story of Seville's motto.  It's in the green rectangle under the picture of the king.  It's a rebus, and the elongated figure 8 in the middle is a skein of wool - in Spanish, madeja.  It reads "no madeja do", which is "no me ha dejado," "you have not left me."  It refers to a time in the 13th century when King Alfonso X was battling for his throne (against his son!).  Seville was just about the only city that did not desert him.  He was known as Alfonso el Sabio, "the Wise."  One of his fields of endeavour was astronomy, and a crater on the moon is named for him.

This was Semana Santa – Holy Week – and there were processions all over the place, people in hooded outfits that recalled the KKK, and floats with religious displays on them. I took some pictures (of course!), but mostly I tried to avoid them.

I was planning to go to Granada, but when I learned that to see the Alhambra you have to book a ticket a month in advance or be prepared to get in line at 7:30 a.m., I decided to go to Córdoba instead. Again, the hostel was central, and most things were walkable.  It has a cathedral built around a mosque, which is still there.  The photo on the left is the mosque; you can see the Arabic script.

The Sinagoga, a little Jewish museum, was well worth a visit. One wall had a list of notable Spaniards who had, or were accused of having, Jewish ancestry. (It was a serious slander in those days.) The guided tour was in Spanish, a little of which I understood, and at the end, the guide, a young man, sang several songs in Ladino, unaccompanied and quite beautifully.

There were ceramic tiles everywhere, including this mural.  And I did look for birds, of course.  Here's a weird duck.  You often see hybrid ducks, but I've never seen one as strange as this.

And here we see that one of our favourite songs is also a favourite in southern Spain.

I took a trip to Madinat al-Zahra, an archaeological site of a 10th-century Moorish palace, in a purpose-built capital city, just outside Seville. Well worth the trip – fascinating and beautiful.

I had booked accommodation beforehand in Seville, Madrid, Barcelona, and Amsterdam, and winged the rest.  I couldn't book three nights in Toledo, so I went to Salamanca for a day.  An interesting town - the university is the oldest in Spain and one of the oldest in Europe.  The cathedral has had some recent restoration work, and the carver included an astronaut (!) and a mischievous monkey wielding a hammer - a selfie?

By now I was a little tired of cathedrals, so I started looking at the small details.  Here's a misericord - that's a carving under the seat of a choir member.  They have to stand through services, but they have seats of a sort where they can lean their bums, hence the name. This one shows mermaids!

And there are lots of literary monuments, celebrating not only writers, but fictional characters.  I almost got a photo of a magpie sitting on the statue of Lazarillo de Tormes, which would have been appropriate.  (He is the hero, if that is the word, of the first picaresque novel.  A picaro is a rogue.)  I also enjoyed the Art Nouveau/Art Deco museum, and the murals on the street.

Around the corner from the hostel was a little restaurant that served tapas for one euro apiece. Great price! I ate tapas whenever I could. Favourite: a cold tomato soup called salmorejo, something like gazpacho but even better. When local tomatoes come into season, I’m going to make it.

Toledo was on my list partly because of the El Greco celebration. A recent article in the New York Times would have been useful, because I thought the Museo El Greco would be where the action was. It wasn’t – most of the paintings were at Santa Cruz, including two old friends. Well, a friend – View of Toledo – and an acquaintance, the portrait of Cardinal Fernando Niño Guevara, both on loan from the Met in New York. That Cardinal, a member of the Inquisition, was the kind of man who doesn’t have friends. I think his was the only Greco portrait of someone whom I would not like to meet.

But next to the Greco Museum was the Sefarad. Toledo, like some other places in Spain, is doing what it can to commemorate the Sephardic Jews who were an important segment of the population until they were expelled in 1492 (or, in some places, earlier). The museum was worth visiting; and in the streets of what used to be the Jewish quarter, there are little plaques. Some say “Chai” (life), and some say "Sefarad” ( Sephardic Jews).

Perhaps the most famous (and perhaps the best) Greco, the Burial of Count Orgaz, is still in the Church of San Tomé, for which it was commissioned. I lucked out there. I found myself next to a woman who was telling, in English, the story of the painting.

The Count, a man renowned for his piety, died in 1312, and according to legend, St. Augustine and St. Stephen (not the first martyr, but a bishop who was the church’s patron saint) descended from heaven to bury him. He had left a sum of money for something (I picked up the story in the middle) – masses to be said for his soul? anyway, something to do with the church – in perpetuity. Two centuries later, the church decided that perpetuity had lasted long enough, and the money should go into general revenue. But the priest who was the actual beneficiary – the one being paid to say the masses, or whatever it was – objected, and sued. The case took 23 years, but he won, and the win included 23 years of back pay. He decided to spend this windfall on a painting of the Count’s burial, and commissioned El Greco to paint it.

The lower half of the painting shows the burial, with prominent men of the time standing around, including El Greco himself. In the upper half, the Count’s soul, in the form of a cloudy fetus-like object, is being taken into heaven by John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. (I had seen reproductions of the painting and not understood that!)

By bus to Madrid, where, again, the hostel was central, and there was a guided walking tour. I got to the Prado when it was free (6 to 8 p.m.). I didn’t see everything – it’s huge - but I saw the Velásquezes and the Goyas, which blew me away. The next day I went to the Thyssen, a private collection now a museum, which I loved. There were paintings there by really good artists whom I had never heard of.  Here's one by Max Pechstein. And here's a charming bakery window display.  And a shop door.  Even their casual decorative art is good.

I discovered – on the railway’s English language website! not the Spanish – that seniors can buy, for six euros, a “tarjeta dorada,” which entitles you to a hefty discount on train fares. (Many places – museums etc. – have discounts for seniors, whom they call “jubilado/as.” Lovely word – “celebrated ones.”) So I took the fast train to Barcelona, which took about three hours. The bus would have taken ten! Train fare was twice (but not three times!) the bus fare, and well worth it. The train goes 300 km/hr, and feels perfectly smooth.

I arrived in Barcelona on Sant Jordi day. Sant Jordi, a.k.a. St. George, is the city’s patron saint. It is traditional for women to be given red roses – I was offered one on the train, but turned it down (what would I do with it? and I didn’t know about the custom). Legend has it that when Sant Jordi killed the dragon, the dragon’s blood turned to red roses. Men are given books, and in Barcelona it is a book festival. The Ramblas, the main drag, was lined with people selling books, people buying books, even people reading books.

Catalunya (that’s how they spell it) is holding a referendum on separation in September, and I saw lots of Catalan flags, people wearing Catalan colours, and the street signs are in Catalan.

I walked down to the harbour, full of people having a good time, and saw a white wagtail, one of my favourite European birds.

I saw lots of Gaudí. Just off the Ramblas is the Güell Palau, which was free for Sant Jordi. Very fin de siècle – Art Nouveau-ish – and very beautiful. Gaudí is regarded, correctly in my opinion, as both a genius and a nut. The Palau was built for a musical family, and includes an organ. Even the toilet is beautiful!

The next day the hostel offered a walking tour of Gaudí – just the outsides of his buildings, ending up at his great church, the Sagrada Familia. I had some lunch at a nearby restaurant, and stood in line for an hour and a half to get in.

It was worth the wait. I had visited medieval cathedrals in all six cities, and this was different. The cathedrals are beautiful, impressive, but they speak of money, power, hierarchy. The Sagrada Familia is also beautiful and impressive, but it is full of light and colour, and was built (is still being built! it won’t be finished for at least another twenty years) with the offerings of the faithful. It shows. It seemed to me to be a friendly place, odd as that may sound for a huge church.

Then I headed for the Parc Güell, also designed by Gaudí, fantastical and wonderful. I got in free, by dint of climbing up what felt like endless stairs. I bought a pair of earrings from an illegal street vendor, whose wares were displayed on an umbrella which he could fold up and whisk away when the cops appeared. I found some tapas on the way to the subway, by which time I was very tired and very hungry.

Next day I walked to the Picasso Museum. Mostly early work, very interesting – he was a full-fledged pro at age 14. No photos allowed – except for one.

I walked the narrow streets of what used to be the Jewish quarter until I found, with some difficulty, the Sinagoga. It is tiny, mostly a museum but also a working synagogue. You can have a wedding there, or a bar mitzvah, if you are content with a handful of guests. And I saw a Plaça George Orwell on the map, so of course I had to go there. And you'll be pleased to know that Barcelona's leftie tradition is being carried on.

Early next morning I flew to Amsterdam. (There are direct flights from Toronto to Spain later in the year, but not in April. I had decided to have a day in Amsterdam, but by then I had developed what I assumed was a nasty cold, though later, when I got home, it turned out to be a nasty case of the flu. I wasn’t feeling up to doing much – and it turned out to be Kingsday, the Dutch national holiday. Everyone was out in the streets, many wearing orange (the royal family is the House of Orange). There were no streetcars in the centre of town – too many people! Not only Dutch; there were lots of Brits over for the day to drink beer.

I did get to the Van Gogh Museum, but not to the Rijksmuseum. Too tired. I walked, and walked, battling the crowds, looking in vain for an open drugstore where I could get some antihistamines. When I got back to the hostel, one of the other women gave me some. I shall have to go back to Amsterdam some time, but not on Kingsday! rent a bike, ride around the canals, and go to the museums I missed.

England, May 2013: Birding, Float to the Festival, and a reunion

I went to England to go on Tom Lewis's "Float to the Festival," a two-week folk-music trip by canal boat.  Tom is a folk musician, and my fellow boaters are folkies like me.  Some are amateur musicians; we had a flute, a fiddle, two accordions, a recorder, and of course singers.  But I went birding as well.  I'd been in Britain, forty years ago, but I wasn't a birder then.

The first thing I did when I arrived in London was to go to the office of the RSPB – the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – and join up. New members get a gift, and mine was their bird book. Heavy, bulky, barely fit in my pants pocket, but good; a full page per species. I made good use of it. The second place I went was St James’s Park, to look at the birds – what else? including descendents of pelicans given by the Czar to Charles II.

From there I walked to Trafalgar Square, stopping en route, I’m sorry to say, in a McDonalds for a bite to eat. Yes, I know, but it was cheap, and it was there. I made my way to Westminster Quaker Meeting, off Trafalgar Square, where they welcomed me and gave me tea. One of their wardens turned out to have a brother who loves old maps, so I gave her my tourist maps that I had saved from the last time I was in Britain, in the 60s.  They were totally obsolete, of course.

Quakers have a list of people who will open their homes to visiting Friends, and I had arranged to stay with one my first night in England. She is a gardener and a forager – she served me nettle soup, which was delicious (must be gathered with gloves!).

Next day I headed for Suffolk by train.  I stayed one night in a youth hostel and then in a B&B.   I spent a day at Minsmere Nature Reserve, which is wonderful, and a day at another reserve, North Warren, which was a nice walk in the country but not great for birds. I did hear a cuckoo – didn’t even try to see it – and hobbies, a kind of hawk. And a water vole, a.k.a. Ratty in “Wind in the Willows,” which looked like a groundhog, but they don’t have groundhogs in England.

Sue Duncan whom I had met (where? waiting for a bus, I think) had phoned and offered to take me to the nearest train station in her truck. She wound up taking me all the way to Hunstanton youth hostel, on the Norfolk coast, with a stop at Pensthorpe, a reserve with a collection of waterfowl, including some captive birds that you would be unlikely to see elsewhere. We enjoyed that!

The first day I was advised not to go to Snettisham, because it was very windy, so I went to Titchwell, which was great. It has a visitors’ centre with a café where you could watch birds at feeders. Hides – shelters where you can watch birds without them seeing you. A variety of habitat. Like Minsmere, not great for land birds, but fabulous for waterfowl.

Next day I went to Snettisham, and I lucked out. I was on the bus with a group of men who pointed me to a sign that said RSPB. I thought it might be the reserve, which is some distance from the bus stop, but it was their office. But a man there gave me a ride all the way to the reserve, and on the way we saw a red kite. At the reserve, of course there were other birders. One man, from a hide, scanned a flock of black-headed gulls and found one Mediterranean gull. I couldn’t have spotted it.

My Quaker hostess had told me about a Quaker retreat centre at Bamford in the Peak District. So the next day I took two buses and three trains, and got there around 5 p.m. I went to the local store to buy food – I fed myself for, I think, three days, on £11 and change. Fish and chips are pretty cheap, but more expensive than cooking.

The centre is a beautiful old house that used to be the Water Board HQ. Cold! the weather was unseasonably cold, but a hot water bottle at the foot of the bed helped a lot. One of the people there loaned me an Ordinance Survey map, so I could go walking with some notion of where I was. The first day I went north, on a heritage path – England is full of wonderful footpaths, some old, some new. I went up the River Derwent, and wound up climbing most of the way up Win Hill (yes, there’s a Lose Hill across the valley.  No one knows the reason for the names). Up was hard, down was harder – very steep.

That night I was invited to folk night at a pub. It was mostly an instrumental jam session, dance tunes etc., with accordions, flute, fiddles (one of them a real pro). But later there was a singaround. I did five songs, some with borrowed guitar, some unaccompanied. Lots of fun.

Next day I went east, downstream along the Derwent – very pretty. Met other walkers, including a small group doing the entire walk, 60 miles, in three days. Back to the road, took the bus to Castleton, a very pretty but very touristy town, with an excellent small museum and caverns which I didn’t go into.   The bus back went through a village where the streets were very nearly too narrow for it to get through.  I don't think I could ever drive in the U.K.

Early next morning I caught a train to Manchester, then to Chester and Chirk. While I waited near the train station I was passed by a few Stanley Steamers chugging along. A rally of antique cars? Tourist attraction? Both? (I asked Dr. Google later, but got no answer.) Finally Tom and Lyn Lewis, in the van, saw me and picked me up. On the boats at last!

We had two boats, the Arthur and the Pontcysyllte, named for the famous aqueduct. Fourteen people: On the Ponty, Tom and Lyn Lewis; Eric and Ellen, from Maine and Albuquerque; Bob and Carol, from Ottawa. On the Arthur, Janice and Tom, from Nanaimo; Dale and Susan, from Ottawa; Jackie, from Ottawa, and me; Bob and Tova, from Connecticut. Breakfast and lunch were on the boats; for dinner we would go to a pub. Pub food is good, much better than forty years ago, if memory serves.

Quite a few had been on Float to the Festival before, and some knew how to steer the boat. I decided I would learn, too. The first week it was dreadfully windy, and I had trouble, but I was fairly proficient by the end of the trip. At a shop near one of the locks someone bought us buttons: First Mate, Lockmaster, Galley Slave – and, for me, Tiller Girl. I’m very proud of it.  (It's a joke in England – the Tiller Girls are the equivalent of the Rockettes.

I should say that the days were mostly fairly uneventful. I steered the boat sometimes, other times watched the world go by at walking, or at most jogging, pace, and looked for birds. I was never bored, and I have a low boredom threshold.

The first day we went west, over the Pontcysillte aqueduct, to Llangollen. I have to say that Llangollen, while pretty, doesn’t have enough in it for a full day, though I did have a nice walk up the river where I saw a pair of mandarin ducks (pictured here) and a pair of pied wagtails. I think wagtails are my favourite English birds. There was a concert for us in a pub that night.

Next day we went back over the aqueduct, through Chirk and onto the Shropshire Union Canal, heading for Chester. We moored that night in Ellesmere. I got up early next day to check out Ellesmere, which was supposed to have good birding. Nope. I saw a thrush, in someone’s garden, and lots of rabbits in a little reserve – and swans and Canada geese. The bird book says that someone brought Canada geese to Britain in the 17th century,  so they can't blame us, eh?

Next evening we had another concert in another pub, a male trio called "Three Sheets to the Wind," very good, who sang mostly shanties.

By now it was Thursday, and we arrived in Chester. Chester’s medieval centre is beautiful, and tiny. You can walk around the walls, and walk through the town and take too many pictures of the beautiful half-timbered houses. The Town Hall is lovely, the cathedral is worth a visit, the Grosvenor Museum is very good.  Not far away is a museum dedicated to canal boats.  There were old ones on display - beautifully decorated, both inside and out.

And I found a place to buy a zipper to replace the one in my fleece, which had stopped functioning. My fellow boaters thought it was amazing that I could sew the new one in. Tom Lewis asked if I could fix a hole in his jacket pocket. Duh. Don't people know how to sew any more?

Chester Folk Festival: Three days (the Monday was a bank holiday). All the venues were inside, thank goodness, including the main stage, which was in a marquee with the sides down. Saturday and Sunday were sunny but chilly; Monday it rained again.  Highlights: Jez Lowe, whom I’ve heard in Canada. Brian Peters, ditto. Pete Coe, whom I had never heard of, but who was wonderful. Les Barker, at whom I laughed till I cried. Charlotte Peters Rock – quiet voice, unaccompanied, her own historical songs. The Young ‘Uns, three young men who sometimes sang – wonderfully – a cappella.

Tuesday evening we had more entertainment – ourselves! singing at the pub where we had dinner.

Thursday evening we went to Wrexham, for their regular folk club. The star that night was Hughie Jones, whom I had never heard of, but who wrote “Marco Polo,” which I have heard many times at Toronto Folk Song Circle. The Shropshire Union Occasional Band, as Tom called the musicians on the boats, had a twenty-minute set. I borrowed a guitar and sang “The Mermaid and the Swallow,” which was the only Canadian song of the evening.

On Friday the weather was finally sunny. I took a lot of photos, and stripped down to two shirts. (I had brought two short-sleeved and two long-sleeved shirts, a fleece, and a windbreaker, and mostly I wore all of them at once.) Friday night was our final banquet, at a restaurant (not a pub).

Saturday: Back to the Chirk marina, and then a long drive to drop people off. From Heathrow I took the tube to Woolwich Arsenal, and found my friend Ann’s house.  We were roommates in Toronto forty years ago!

Sunday I was a tourist. I went to the Tate Modern (didn’t care for it), the Tate Britain (liked it very much), and in between mingled with the large crowds out to enjoy London on a beautiful sunny Sunday.

Monday Ann and I went to the London Wetland Centre, full of wonderful birds, where we had an excellent guided tour by a docent, and saw, among other things, a little grebe on her (or his?) nest.

Tuesday I finally got to the National Portrait Gallery, which I enjoyed very much, and then Ann and I met our third roommate from forty years ago, Laurie, who was in England, and had a lovely reunion lunch. A walk down the south bank of the Thames at sunset, and to bed, because Wednesday I flew home.

I took lots of photos.  These are just a few of them.

Ecuador and the Galapagos, December 2012

My friend Charlie Diamond has an old friend – Roger Hollander, who used to be a Toronto city councillor – who lives in Ecuador. Last year he went to visit him, and when he came home I asked, “Did you get to the Galápagos?” “No.” “Next year, I’m coming too, and we’ll go to the Galapagos.” Well, I did, and we did.

We were in Ecuador for three weeks. Roger has a house in Playas, a town an hour from Guayaquil, two blocks from the beach. He has rooms that he rents out to tourists. One of those rooms was ours for the whole three weeks. He was a wonderful host, together with his wife, Carmen, when she was in town.

I had taken three books out of the Toronto public library on the birds and wildlife of the Galápagos. I had completely forgotten that there’s the rest of Ecuador! Many of the birds I saw in Playas, and in Guayaquil and Quito, I had to look at without knowing their names. I figured when I found a good bookstore I’d buy a bird book for Ecuador, but when I saw one, it was three inches thick! So I did without.

I did identify frigatebirds, though I never could distinguish between Magnificent and Great. They are always in the air over the beach at Playas, and when fishermen come in on their little rafts with their catch, and clean the fish on the beach, the frigates dive down and pick up the leavings. People in Playas call them gaviotas – gulls – which they are not. I did see a few gulls, Franklins I think, but far away from the frigates, which are kleptoparasites, i.e. they steal the fish that other birds have caught. They are much bigger than gulls, and if I were a gull I’d steer clear of the frigates too.

I saw a few great egrets [garzas blancas], and quite a few snowy egrets [garcitas blancas], smaller, with “golden slippers,” bright yellow feet. A species new to me. There were lots of pelicans, not to be confused with pelucanos [I think that’s how you spell it], which means “bigwigs,” rich people.

There were common ground doves, rather like mourning doves but smaller, and (probably) eared doves. There were green parrots, or perhaps parakeets. There were turkey vultures [zopilotes] and black vultures [buitres]. (We have turkey vultures here in Toronto, and we will soon have black vultures; they have been seen as far north as Pennsylvania.) A few times one of them would land on a lamppost right down the street. There were grackles [zanates], probably great-tailed, and anis – I think I saw both smooth-billed and groove-billed – with their huge beaks. During our last few days in Playas I saw a hummingbird – they call them picaflores there – probably a female, probably the same one, since they are territorial. I think it was a Shining Sunbeam (see Google Images). There are dozens of species of hummingbirds in Ecuador. (In Toronto there is only one.)

In the Playas town square there are lots of iguanas, which people feed. (Ditto in a certain small park in Guayaquil, where there are signs telling people not to feed the animals and not to touch the animals. Oh, sure!)

There were two mockingbirds [cucuves] – probably long-tailed mockingbirds – who hung around Roger’s house, singing in the mornings and apparently competing for dominance. There were yellow warblers, which didn’t look quite like the ones we see in Toronto. There were saffron finches (I think), a pair of them, which I saw several times. There were lots of swallows –probably martins – dark backs, light bellies – that gathered on electric wires at night and hunted for insects high in the air during the day.

We spent several days in Playas, then a couple in Guayaquil, the biggest city, before we flew to the Galapagos. We stayed in a hotel on the Malecón, which is the riverbank park, and walked up and down it, up and down Las Peñas. This is a hill which is the oldest neighbourhood in Guayaquil, now a rich one, beautiful and picturesque. Including the lighthouse at the top, it must have been something like 500 steps! Hard going up, and hard going down, but very pretty. I saw some nice birds on the way – swallows (martins??), blue-grey tanagers, others that I couldn’t identify.

There is a museum on the Malecón, where I photographed a painting of a “graveyard of the rusted automobiles,” a lovely little park with plantings and a pool full of waterbirds, a playground, etc., all full of Guayaquilians with their children.

We had booked a tour of the Galapagos before we left Toronto. We flew there from Guayaquil – it’s 1000 miles away, in the next time zone – and spent four nights on a cruise ship. We would sail from island to island at night, board pangas (which is what they call zodiacs), and either land on the island, travel around the shore, or go snorkeling, from the beach or from the panga. Charlie didn’t snorkel – wise, perhaps, since his bad back would probably not have responded well – but I did. Saw lots of fish, some very beautiful.

What else? Sea lions, all over the place, including on benches meant for humans in the town of San Cristóbal, which was our last stop. We saw a baby being nursed by its mother. Iguanas galore, and tiny lava lizards. Sally Lightfoot crabs - very common, very beautiful.

Birds: First one I saw was a common noddy, a beautiful dark tern. Common (there!) but new to me. Lots of pelicans. Lots of frigates, a few males with the red breast they develop in mating seasons. Three kinds of boobies, which are the poster-birds of the Galapagos: blue-footed, red-footed, and Nazca, which are black and white. I think I prefer the Spanish name, piquero, for their pica (beak). When they dive from a height, straight down into a school of fish, they make quite a splash.

On Tower Island we walked among their nests, saw some with babies. They don’t compete for food (they fish at different distances from land) or nest sites (blue-footed nest in rock crevices, red-footed in trees, Nazca on land), so they co-exist nicely. And they aren’t afraid of humans, so you can go right up to them. There were also a flock of band-rumped storm petrels, and a short-eared owl, a good sighting.

Swallow-tailed gulls are lovely. Red-billed tropicbirds, with their streaming long tails, are quietly spectacular. American oystercatchers, new to me, were sitting on eggs. We saw flamingos, not many; yellow-crowned night herons; and a pair of striated herons. We saw a few penguins – their numbers were reduced several years ago by an El Niño.

There are lots of mockingbirds in the Galápagos; four species are endemic, i.e. found nowhere else. At one point we saw a finch – I saw quite a few, but didn’t try to identify the species – use its big, tough beak to peck a hole in a cactus fruit, which has moisture inside. Then along came a mockingbird, chased away the finch, and drank from the fruit. Water is at a premium in the islands, certainly during the dry season.

Our last morning was on San Cristóbal, where we went up a small mountain in a bus to the tortoise nursery. Charlie enjoyed this, since it was cool (I found it cold!) and misty. There were birds there too – I saw a Galápagos flycatcher.

We didn’t see albatrosses, or flightless cormorants, or a vermilion flycatcher (we were taken to a place where they are sometimes seen). But I have been a birder long enough to know that you never see everything.

From San Cristóbal we flew to Guayaquil, and then to Quito. We had to change planes in Guayaquil, and barely made it, since the plane from the Galapagos was late, but we had assistance from the cruise ship people and the staff at the airport.

Charlie loves Quito. It is on the equator, but so high up in the Andes – 3000 metres – that it is quite cool. It is surrounded by mountains – quite spectacular. And it is a busy, bustling city, full of people, full of life. We stayed in a little hotel that you might describe as basic, but perfectly adequate, in the Marescal, a neighbourhood also known as Gringolandia. Full of little restaurants where you can get a meal for five dollars or less. We went to the Mitad del Mundo – well, both of them – parks that are right on the equator (“mitad” means “half”), with exhibits and birds, including a southern yellow grosbeak and a lovely iridescent hummingbird. And we took the cable car that goes up a mountain. From the top there is a path that you can walk – if you have the stamina, which we don’t! – another three miles to a mountain peak. We went to the Old Town, full of buildings from the earliest days of Spanish colonization, where we got caught in an unexpected thunderstorm – the day had started out with a clear blue sky - and were lucky to find a taxi.

On Christmas Day, back to Playas for rest, relaxation, swimming (for me). I got knocked down a couple of times by the waves – as I said to my rescuers, I’m from Canada, I’m used to swimming in lakes and rivers. More strolls into town, good meals in cheap restaurants, and good times with Roger and Carmen and their friends.

It was interesting, and occasionally useful, travelling in a sexist country. If a man and a woman are travelling together, the man tends to subsume the woman. This sometimes meant that Charlie’s documents were examined closely and mine were just glanced at. And at the airport, when we told them that Charlie had a bad back and needed help getting his luggage up onto the rack, guess who got helped?

I wanted to take pictures of some of the better graffiti, and for that matter some of the spectacular wall art decorating underpasses in Guayaquil. (Have to google them!) I never did, but I saw a graffito in Quito that said NO MATES EL PLANETA MATA TU AUTOMOVIL [Don’t kill the planet, kill your car].


In The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin, aliens come to live on Earth. At one point, the hero walks into a curiosity shop, a junk shop really, run by an alien. He asks the proprietor how he chooses what to sell in the shop. The answer: “What comes is acceptable.”

I have often thought that this is a very good motto for travelling.



Potters for Peace

E-mail Print PDF

Potters for Peace February 2011 Brigade

Back in the 80s, when Ronald Reagan was sabre-rattling (and illegally funding the Nicaraguan Contras), I made little pins out of clay, saying:



war is bad for

people and other

things made of clay

I gave some to other peacenik potters and sometimes wore mine.  Then one day in, I think, 1996, I was in the Pottery Supply House, waiting to be waited on, and wandered over to their bulletin board, where I saw a newsletter from Potters for Peace!  My jaw dropped.  I had had no idea there was actually such an organization.

I wrote to the contact person, saying the brigades sounded like fun, that I have some Spanish, but that I'm a North American wimp.  I have an electric wheel and and electric kiln.  I buy my clay in bags.  What would I have to teach that Nicaraguan potters could use?  I got a lovely reply saying, Don't worry, we'll put you to work.  I went on the 1997 brigade.  The 2011 was my second.

Potters for Peace began in the 1980s, when a group in Washington, D.C. decided that if Ronald Reagan was going to give ten million dollars to the Contras, they were going to try to raise ten million for the Sandinistas. Some of them were potters, and they made contact with Nicaraguan potters.

Ron Rivera, the first paid staffer, had come to Nicaragua “for a woman and a revolution, in that order.” (The woman became his wife.) He tried to visit every potter in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas had done a cultural inventory – that’s how he found the potters – but he didn’t manage to meet them all; there are too many. He had looked at ten different methods for purifying water, including Manny Gutiérrez’s filter, which Potters for Peace took up as a major project after Hurricane Mitch, in 1998, attracted grant money from the first world to develop it. There are now filter factories in a number of countries. Ron was working on one in Nigeria in 2008 when he contracted a virulent, and fatal, form of malaria. He is greatly missed.

The present Nicaraguan coordinator is Robert Pillers. His wife, Bev, was a member, with me, of the 1997 brigade, and after he retired they moved to Nicaragua. His assistant, Alvaro, is also his son-in-law.

The other brigadistas were Meg, from New Jersey; Doug, from Brooklyn; Moriah, from Oregon; Tom, from Pennsylvania; Maria, from El Salvador, and Erica, who came with her but is not a potter; Lilian, from El Ojoche (of which more later); and Jorge, our driver.Brigada at Kairos


In 1997 we travelled in a pickup, with many of us riding in the truck bed. This time we had a minibus, air-conditioned!, with a driver. Much more comfortable!

In Managua we stayed at a hostel run by Kairos Nicaragua (no relationship, so far as I know, to Kairos Canada), in a suburb – comfortable, lovely garden, good food. Cold showers, but that is standard in Nicaragua, and in that climate it’s not a problem.


Our first day we had a little tour of Managua, which included a trip to the volcano – active – at Masaya. There are signs telling people to park facing outward, just in case. Then an orientation session in the Pillers’ back yard, where their neighbour, who is a journalist, told us a great deal about the history of Nicaragua and its current political situation. (If you want to know more, let me know!)



On Monday we went to the filter factory, saw how they are made and even made some ourselves. It is not high-tech, but it is tech. They are made in a mechanized press mold, though the ones we made were done in a mold worked by human muscle power. It isn’t Filtereasy. They look like great big flower pots. Just the filter itself is ceramic; the bucket it sits in is plastic. They filter one to two litres an hour, and remove everything except viruses. They are impregnated with colloidal silver, which kills the bacteria. Robert said the weak point is the spigot, which can be contaminated very easily. A problem with, so far, no solution. But if the spigot is kept clean, a filter can supply a household with clean water, preventing water-borne diseases, which kill a lot of children in the third world.


On Tuesday we loaded up the bus and went to another filter factory, the original one, smaller and less successful. They also make glazed stoneware, the only place in Nicaragua to do so. (It really isn’t very good.) Their cinder blocks bring in most of their income.

Then to La Paz Centro, where we met some of the potters that Potters for Peace works with. Mercedes Vega demonstrated how she makes her charming hen-shaped pots. Looks easy, but it isn’t – we tried. I said I would try making one on the wheel when I got home, and I did.

We carried on to León, a largeish city, where we made like tourists (well, we were tourists) and explored the cathedral, including going up on the roof.

Outside our motel was a billboard – see the photo – with the slogan “Viva León Jodido!” Jodido means “screwed”, though I am told that it’s not as vulgar in Spanish as it would be in English. I think it had something to do with losing at soccer. We borrowed the slogan for our t-shirt, of which more later.


Viva Leon Jodido!On Wednesday we went to a little village called El Ojoche, in the north of the country, named for a tree that doesn’t grow there any more (like Oakville, Ontario). We spent three days there, building a kiln. We stayed with people there, and did our best to communicate.

A few weeks before the trip started, Robert sent round an email saying that our hosts in El Ojoche were afraid the gringos wouldn’t like the food. I wrote back saying rice and beans is fine with me, as indeed it was with everyone else, though iguana, which was served to one of us, was perhaps a bit too far.

I should tell you that I can say things in Spanish and (I think) be understood, though my vocabulary is limited, and I have a lot of trouble understanding what is said to me. Erica, who has been working in El Salvador, is fluent, as is Maria, of course. Moriah has a bit of Spanish. Meg had spent a week in a Spanish school in Granada, and that was it! Tom has some Spanish, and so does Doug. When he didn’t know the Spanish for what he wanted to say, he would make it up. It worked fine. Robert, our leader, is fluent, though with a gringo accent.

El Ojoche is poor, though there are poorer people and poorer places. The houses are solid. There is electricity – for a few lights, radio, and TV. There are proper latrines, courtesy of an NGO. There are water pumps, also courtesy of an NGO. Until a couple of years ago women had to go fetch water and carry it home on their heads. To bathe, you fill a bucket, take it into a curtained enclosure, and pour the water over yourself. It works just fine. There are chickens in and out of the houses; cattle and pigs; dogs – skeletally thin – and the occasional cat. The paved roads in Nicaragua are better than they were in 1997, but the unpaved roads, including the one into El Ojoche, are still as bad, and that means very bad indeed.


The kiln is a Manny-kiln, designed by Manny Gutierrez, the same man who designed the water filter. It is wood-fired, efficient, a downdraft kiln (this will mean something to potters). It is built out of bricks made locally. Robert and Alvaro did the measuring and supervision, and we brigadistas started the work, but were soon joined by the women of El Ojoche who will be using it. They wound up doing most of the work, which is a good thing. Since they built it, it is theirs. If we had built it, it wouldn’t be. Alvaro did the last bit, which was to finish the chimney while standing on the roof.

Alvaro starts the kiln


Kairos had been working with these people for several years to help them weld themselves into a community, without which there would have been no point building a kiln. We were told that they used to be all Catholics, but a few years ago some evangelicals came and converted some of them, and that caused dissension.

My first night there, my host asked me if I was Catholic. I said no, that some of us were Catholic, some not, and I didn’t care. I wish now I had had the chutzpah to add “and two of us are Jewish.”


The first thing we had to do was get the bricks down the hill to where the kiln was to be built. People started by carrying them down, two at a time, until Doug got us to form a human chain, so the bricks moved but the people didn’t. Simple, and brilliant.

North American bricks are regular, and they are twice as long as they are wide. These were not, and a lot of them had to be cut to fit. This was done with a machete (didn’t do the machete any good), or a trowel, or, in a few cases, a saw (didn’t do the saw any good either). Cutting bricks took a lot of our time.

Alvaro makes the chimneyOur last morning there we gathered in a circle for a little ceremony. The leaders of the brigade and of the community spoke of their hopes for their work, and then just about everyone else said a little something. These women have serious problems to solve: access to clay, access to decorative slips, and getting their pots to market along that dirt road. They also have to get a roof up over the kiln before the rainy season, and dig a trench to divert water around the kiln, which is near the bottom of a hill. But I think they will manage to solve these problems. I was impressed by the spirit I saw there.


In the middle of this meeting someone told me to turn around – by then everyone knew I’m a birder – and there in a tree, in full sunlight, was a guardabarranco (guardian of the ravine), the national bird of Nicaragua – in English a blue-crowned motmot, a stunning bird. A good omen, I hope. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue-crowned_Motmot

El Ojoche was roughing it. Accommodations after that were cushy by comparison, and the food was excellent, especially breakfasts. Nicaraguans believe in breakfast. You get some or all of: Rice and beans. Scrambled eggs. A slab of cheese. A tortilla. Fruit, and maybe fruit juice as well. Possibly a baked goodie. And lovely coffee.


ArmadilloThat day, Friday, we went to La Sabaneta, where they gave us lunch and demonstrated their wonderful hand-built pottery animals. We tried it too. I tried the wheel – good clay, but it has to be thrown fast, and of course the wheels are kick wheels, and I’m used to electric (!).


Saturday we went to Santa Rosa, a Sandinista coop, the only one, of dozens if not hundreds, which is still a going concern. Very interesting history. And fabulous pottery, done by both men and women. Traditionally, in most of Nicaragua, potters are women; if a man is a potter he is assumed to be a maricón. This is changing, and in particular men are working on the wheel. Machinery is considered to be a guy thing.


Tom had brought along a huge bat, with which he demonstrated a method of throwingSlip trailing decoration multiple large plates on just the one bat. The Santa Rosa potters demonstrated their method of slip trailing: they sieve the clay by squeezing it through an old t-shirt, and use a plastic bag as a slip trailer. I’m going to try it. Works a lot better than any slip trailer I’ve ever used.



Then to La Maisuta, where there is a new factory being built to make filters, named after Ron Rivera. (I’ve got the t-shirt.) We went to Somoto for the night, to a hostel run by the Instituto de Promoción Humana. Dorm rooms, a bit like summer camp. We could hear the men snoring next door. Dinner was at a pizza joint (some of us, not me, were tired of Nico food). Erica and Alvaro had a theological Pizza and beerargument, in Spanish, over whether beer or soda is worse. It was fun.  That's me in the foreground.



Next day we had to switch to a four-wheel-drive pickup to go to Loma Panda. (I pulled the age card and rode in the cab.) You go quite a ways down a serious dirt road, which the minibus could not have handled. You cross a stream (there are stones), and go up a hill for twenty minutes or so. Loma Panda means “winding hill,” and it’s accurate. I was there in 1997, and their work, wonderful then, is even better, if possible. They make dolls with jointed limbs; airplanes; animals; figures; and lots of other things. Their customers come to them, dirt road, stream, hill and all.Loma Panda - airplanes


The others went to see the duende, which is a petroglyph of unknown age and unknown meaning. I wasn’t feeling up to it, which was a pity, since Moriah saw a pale-billed woodpecker, as large as our pileated but with a solid red head. Moriah threw a batter bowl, and I threw an elephant. Maybe they’ll copy it. I’d like that.


On the way back to the main road we stopped at Río Arriba, where two elderly sisters make charming piggy Piggy banksbanks – and the only banks I saw with slots big enough to actually accommodate coins.


Next day we went back to Condega, where we visited the local historical museum. Ancient ceramics, stone artifacts, some Spanish artifacts, fossils, and murals. It was next to a historical park with real pots for basureros (trash cans), and huge fake pots made out of concrete for fountains. Then to Ducuale Grande, where I had also been in 1997. At that time they had just landed a contract with Pier I for eighteen thousand pieces, and Ron Rivera was running around looking for more potters to work with them, especially ones who could throw; a carpenter who could make a mold to produce one of the pieces; a roof to keep firewood dry in the rainy season; etc. (As I said, not high-tech.)


They had pieces ready for us to decorate, using their technique of slip resist. You paint your design on a fired pot with slip, and then it is fired again in a smoky kiln. The smoke darkensPottery at Ducuale the clay except for the areas covered with slip. You wash the slip off, and there’s your design.



By now it was Wednesday of our second week, and we had a long drive to Laguna de Apoyo, which is a crater lake, where we stayed at a small resort called the Monkey Hut. We bought food en route and cooked for ourselves. Again, dorms with bunk beds, but wonderful swimming in Laguna Apoyothe lake.


Next day, to San Juan de Oriente. This is a town of potters, the best in the country. We went to see Valentín López, who travelled with us in 1997, guarding the truck when needed. He has done very well indeed. He has a large studio and a school. He gave us a talk on indigenous history, including dancing, and demonstrated on the wheel. The work was very good but ….. a little hackneyed. I bought a mug, but nothing more. I’ve got one of his pots from my last visit, with Mayan designs, which he doesn’t seem to be doing any more. Lots of birds and animals, to please the tourists. Well, can’t argue with that.


We visited several other potters’ studios. Elio Gutiérrez is the best. We weren’t allowed toElio Gutierrez: triple pot take pictures! Everyone imitates him, and no wonder. StoveLester’s work is good, but what I found most interesting is his design for a stove that uses very little wood to cook with. Gregorio Bracamonte is doing excellent copies of pre-Columbian pottery, including a couple of huge statues. Gregorio Bracamonte: Pre-Columbian replicas Duilio was filling an order of lamps and plates for a restaurant that wants traditional-looking stuff.



José Ortiz is basically a painter who works on clay. He is Jose Ortiz: platealso a musician, and (by pre-arrangement, since he and another man spent a day with us earlier in the tour) I borrowed his guitar and sang a couple of verses of Gracias a la Vida, and then, unaccompanied, Lucky Man – in both languages.  (The words, in both languages, are on this blog.)



Now it was Friday, our last day, and we had some free time in the morning. I went birding with another guest at the Monkey Hut, Rodrigo, who had excellent English, excellent eyesight, and a camera with which he had taken a lot of very good photos of birds. I did not bring a camera – I figured, correctly, that everyone else would have a camera and we would share photos – but I did bring binoculars and a borrowed bird book. It seems that I am a better birder than I thought I was. I usually go on walks with the Toronto Field Naturalists, where there are people who are better at finding, and identifying, birds than I am. Here I was on my own, and I found that I could tell roughly what kind of bird it was – a robin (different species from ours), a flycatcher, a grebe, etc. – so at least I knew what to look up in the book. I did lots of opportunistic birding everywhere we went, and learned some of the Spanish names.  Here's an uraco. Looks like a blue jay on steroids.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White-throated_Magpie-Jay


Then to Granada and Mi Museo, the name intending to tell Nicos that it belongs to them. It is the private collection, open to the public, of a Dane who has amassed the best collection of pre-Columbian pottery in the country, better than the National Museum’s. The story of how the Minister of Culture stole his best pieces, and how he got them back, is really something.


A Potters for Peace tradition is that each brigade chooses a name and designs a t-shirt. OursHorno Hoy is the cover of an imaginary magazine called Horno Hoy (Kiln Today), with a photo of the finished El Ojoche kiln. There are titles of articles to be found inside, such as “Qué es Más Macho: Machete o Cuchara? [i.e. for cutting bricks]” Doug did most of the work, on Robert’s laptop. Something that is new since 1997 is that you can find internet cafés in every town. Robert used one to email our t-shirt design to Bev, so when we got back to Managua our t-shirts were ready.


Back to Managua and to Kairos, where Doug did the massive job of editing everyone’s collected photos, and burning a DVD for each of us. He was up until 1:30 in the morning, with an 8:15 flight to catch. Doug would have been worth his weight in gold just for his humour – and then he did this too. (I asked Robert if every brigade had someone like Doug. “Unfortunately, no.”)

Would I recommend going on a Potters for Peace brigade? Not, perhaps, for everyone. You really should be a potter. And if you are like an old friend of mine who used to say that her idea of roughing it was the Harbour Castle Hilton, then it’s not for you. Having some Spanish is good, though not necessary. But if you are interested in what I call purposeful tourism, and would like to spend two weeks of the winter in a hot country, go for it.


Songs. At one point, after we built the kiln, someone said, "Of course Elizabeth will have a folk song."  I came up with the following (tune: "The Garden Song," by David Mallett):

Brick by brick, row by row,

Gonna make this horno1 grow,

All you need is Alvaro

Y tague con cenizas2,

It'll fire your pots in spring and fall,

Fire your pots both large and small,

Fire your pots, come one, come all

Ceramistas por la paz.3

1kiln    2slip mixed with ashes, which we used for mortar   3potters for peace

Birds. I restrained myself from telling you about all the birds I saw.  Here are links to some of them, for those who are interested.  (Note: After looking at the referenced article, click on the arrow to go back to the blog.)  I don't think I saw anything that wasn't fairly common in Nicaragua, though most of them were new to me.


Turkey Vulture, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkey_Vulture Black Vulture, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Vulture Turkey vultures come to Ontario in the summer, and black vultures have extended their range as far north as Pennsylvania, so perhaps we'll see them soon.  Both ubiquitous in Nicaragua.  Turkey vulture in Spanish: zopilote.

Grackles, Nicaraguan and Great-Tailedhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaraguan_Grackle http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great-tailed_GrackleUbiquitous.  Spanish word is zanate.

Clay-coloured Robin, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clay-colored_Robin Doesn't look like our robins, but acts like them, and (I am told) sings beautifully.  In Spanish, yigüirro.  The national bird of Costa Rica, chosen for its song.

Great Kiskadee http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_kiskadee One of several flycatchers that look more or less alike - very striking - pretty sure I identified it correctly.  In city parks.

Hoffmann's Woodpecker http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoffmann's_Woodpecker www.birdforum.net/opus/Hoffmann's_Woodpecker Saw them in the garden at Kairos, starting to build a nest.  A woodpecker is a carpintero.

Masked Tityra Saw a male at Kairos.  Unmistakeable.  Look in Google images.

White-winged Dove http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White-winged_dove or check Google images.   Common in parks - along with pigeons and house sparrows.  Very pretty, especially in flight.  Dove: paloma.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferruginous_Pygmy-owl We saw one in a tree, in daylight.  A good sighting.  Spanish for owl is buho.  Potters make clay buhos.

Spot-breasted Oriole http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spot-breasted_Oriole Saw it, along with other orioles that come here to breed, in the Pillers' garden.

Blue-gray Tanager http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue-gray_Tanager In the Pillers' garden, which backs onto a bird sanctuary.

Pale-billed woodpecker http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale-billed_Woodpecker Alas, I didn't see this one, but Moriah did, at Loma Panda.  Spectacular, eh?




Lucky Man/Buena Suerte Tengo Yo

E-mail Print PDF

LUCKY MAN   Grit Laskin   Spanish translation by Elizabeth Block
1. I had no say in being born,

Or where or when it happened to me,
It's only chance that turned the wheel

And made my living easy.

CHORUS:  Oh, I am a lucky man,

Favoured by good fortune's hand,
Far more than I'm deserving

2. I've had good work since I was young
,Mastered a trade, my business thriving,
Yet thousands idly bide their days:
No job means no surviving

3. I share a love that's fair and true,
A marriage have I that's rich with pleasure,
Yet there are those whose wedding vows

Are shackles that embitter.

4. There's some who die for want of bread,
There's some are killed for seeking freedom,
Yet I have more of what they lack
Than ever I'll be needing.


You can download a recording of this for 99 cents.  Google Grit Laskin, Lucky Man, and the site will come up on the first page.

I sing it unaccompanied.  Accompaniment, if any, is best with something that sustains, like a concertina.  Freely, adjusting the rhythm (and the tune) to the words.  Bear in mind that in Spanish it’s OK to put the accent on the wrong syllable.

Please feel free to share, with José Ortiz or anyone else interested.  Just tell the audience who wrote it!


1. Mi nacimiento no elegí,

Ni el donde ni el cuando,

Fortuna su rueda torneó,

Buen vida me ha dado.


Coro:   Buena suerte tengo yo,

            De la fortuna bandito

            Sin haber merecido.


2. He obrado desde juventud,

Está medrando mi comercio,

Mas miles son sin quehacer:

No empleo, no comida.


3. Con mi cónyuge vivo yo feliz,

Amantes y también amigos,

Mas hay casados que se sienten

Juntados por cadenas.


4. Hay muertos a falta de pan,

Matados por buscar libertad,

Mas de los dos tengo yo más

De lo que necesito.


A Potter's Alphabet

E-mail Print PDF


A Potter’s Alphabet

This is a variation on a traditional theme – A Woodsman’s Alphabet, A Sailor’s Alphabet, etc. If you are not a potter yourself, it probably won’t interest you; in fact, it probably won’t make much sense!

Tune: “Sweet Betsy from Pike.”

A's for alumina, part of all clays,

B is for boron, it makes shiny glaze.

C is for cone, and C is for coil,

Coil pots can be large but they take lots of toil.

More Articles...