Friday, 29 August 2014

Turnip Soup Day Comes Early

Turnip soup day comes like clockwork every year.  Late August, usually.

It starts with a listlessness.  The summer days are still achingly long, but darkness descends at 9 pm rather than 11.  I feel jealous of the kids out getting measured for new school uniforms, and getting their compasses and roller ball pens and file dividers for back-to-school time.

They're going back into a routine.  They're going to learn lots of exciting things about the world.

They're getting a fresh start, a New Year.

I want one, I find myself muttering as I walk through a whiff of acid-free A4 paper in the seasonal aisle at Tesco.

Around that time, all summered out for the year, longing for the comfy, indoorsy autumn feeling that comes with September, turnips are just coming into season.

And they make brilliant soup.

I go back to the same trusty turnip soup recipe every August, hoping each spoonful will coax autumn that bit closer.

Three small turnips.  What we Irish call turnips, that is.  You might call them swedes.  Seasonally orange, sweet and comforting.

Fry on a medium heat, with two chopped onions and a diced potato, for five minutes.  Then cover with chicken stock, pop in two bay leaves, a level teaspoonful of ground nutmeg, and season well with salt and pepper.  Simmer for 30 minutes.  Blitz, check seasoning, and stir in a good pour of single cream.

Kick off the frenzy of summer, and eat from a big bowl in a suitably comfy chair, wearing chunky socks.  Look forward to returning to a sensible routine, making packed lunches, having early nights and digging out woolly jumpers.

Sunday, 20 July 2014


Carn Domhnach ('Burial mound of the church'!) is the
ancient spiritual centre of Inishowen Peninsula in North Donegal
This morning, I drove across Postman Pat countryside to the pretty little village of Carndonagh.  It was my first visit to the Moville group of parishes where I'm helping out for a few weeks over the summer.

The church is right by the famous Carndonagh Cross.  Saint Patrick himself is said to have founded a worshipping community here.

It was rite one: not my forte!  Lots of -ests and -eths to get my tongue around.  

Over the past year, I've learned this about liturgy.  It is creative.  Even older forms and rites, and even in traditional churches with older congregations.

A year ago, preparing to start training for ordained ministry, I was worried about 'making mistakes'.  By that, I meant accidentally departing from the prescribed rubric. 

Now, I think a bigger mistake is to be a slave to the letter of the prayer book!  It's important to spot those wonderful words 'may be said', 'or a portion thereof' and - my personal fave - 'may be adapted according to local custom'.  

Even the contemporary 'Morning Prayer 2' is titled 'an order' and not 'the order' for regular worship.  Cool!

Don't get me wrong.  I like liturgy.  I think all Christian groups have their standard orders of service, and paying critical and conscious attention to it helps us get it right.  Otherwise, without meaning to, services can get flabby, frothy, and more imbued with wider cultural references than the scriptural, story-shaped liturgy we need.  

Did you know that about 70% of the words in the Book of Common Prayer come straight from the Bible?  There's probably no other denomination that hears so much scripture in one 60-minute service!  (Sermon over.) 

Carn's famous Celtic cross
Close-up shows Criost eirithe - Christ is risen!

I think the Church of Ireland has to be brave and bold and follow the Spirit and do things differently.  But throwing out carefully crafted liturgy isn't itself a barrier to fresh expressions of church.  There's a lot of brilliant liturgy in the treasure chest of Christian experience.  We need clever worship leaders to select the right elements for the occasion.  Post-moderns love a bit of ancient stuff woven in with silence, music, drama ...  

Liturgically freer churches aren't all packed to the rafters (a few are).  So I think Anglicans should continue to do what we do (sometimes) well: liturgy.  Our USP.  Based on scripture.  Flexible.  Economical with words.  Ancient faith expressed for people today.  Tolerant of mystery, using silence as well as sound; shadow as well as light.

That's what I was thinking about on my way home this afternoon.  And just a year ago, I doubt any of this would have occurred to me.    

So thanks, parishioners of Carndonagh church, for having me and helping me reflect on worship.  (And perhaps for putting up with my experimentation a bit too.)  Carndonagh might mean 'burial mound of the church' - but this little Christian community is alive and well!  

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Nile Safari Adventure

The drive from Arua to Entebbe International Airport crosses the Nile twice and goes through Murchison Falls National Park.  So it would have been rude not to make a slight detour to see the wildlife.

We left Arua in the dark.  Bye bye little wooden lodge.  Spirits lifted when the sun came up, and sank again when the rain started.  Not good wildlife viewing weather.
The Nile on a wet morning

I'd been thinking a lot recently about the whole issue of providence.  So I thought, I might as well.  Lord, I think this is a superficial prayer.  I'm not sure this interests you, or figures greatly in your redemptive plan.  But I'd like to see a lion.  I'd really like to see a lion.  'Cos I've never seen one in the wild before.

The rain got worse.  It's not looking good, advised our driver Oyobo.  The animals hide when it rains like this.  

Message received.  Adjust expectations.  We'll see lots of birds and interesting plants.

The ranger, Saviour, apologized as we met him at the park entrance.  You must remember that lions are big cats, he said.  Cats hate water.
Rain eases off as we reach the park

We drove less than five minutes, and already there were hundreds of antelope everywhere you looked: Uganda cob, Jackson's hartebeest, oribi and water bucks.  And buffalo as well.  We saw some elderly males, driven out of the herd by younger ones, in threes and fives.  Each had an egret perched on top, in an I'll scratch your back if you let me eat your fleas arrangement.

Families of warthogs scuttled merrily in front of the car.

There were Rothschild giraffe, too.  Hundreds.  Last year in South Africa, we gasped in amazement at the sight of three giraffe.  In Murchison Falls, they were everywhere you looked.  The older ones are almost black.  We saw some younger males duel by basking each other's neck, just like in the BBC's Attenbrough footage recently.  

Poised and ...
We got a rare glimpse of an elephant lying down.  Apparently you don't see that very often.

So, the rain had not kept the wildlife in hiding all morning after all.  It's so abundant in Uganda.  It couldn't possibly all be concealed in the trees and bushes.  There wouldn't be space to hide this number of animals!

... thump.  Two young males neck-duelling.
On our way across Buligi, a strip of savannah between the Albert and Victoris Niles, to see the hippo, Saviour noticed that the hundreds of antelope were on high alert, motionless and emitting a strange high-pitched noise.  Then he spotted an antelope carcass.  More accurately, half a carcass.  The insides had been expertly removed to leave a rib cage and pelt and no more.

There must be lions nearby!

We drove up to the carcass, beside a clump of bushes.  We drove as slowly as Oyobo could round and round the bushes ... and then we saw it.  This was a lions' den.  And inside, you could just make out a massive paw.  And every few seconds, a big face lowered to lick said paw.  

We decided there were in fact two lions in there.  Oyobo whooped.  In all his years driving Mzungus round on safaris, he'd never seen a lion himself.

Unfortunately, there was no way of getting a photo.  It was dark in there.  And we definitely weren't going to get out of the car for a better angle!
Antelope carcass minus innards

Off we drove.  God, you're good.  I saw a lion's paw and face!  After such a rainy morning, too!

We saw more of everything, plus a mongoose and a few monkeys.  Even the birds and trees were more interesting now, because there were lions around!

On the way back, Saviour wondered if the lions had dragged the rest of the carcass into the den, so we swung by.  It was gone.

But antelope is salty meat and makes lions thirsty.  And there they were!  A lioness and her adolescent male, walking to a pool for a drink.  Crouching every few metres in case another kill might present itself.

They lapped.  And lapped.  Thirsty work, this.

They were so close, you could see the expressions of contentment on their faces, the ambivalence about taking down one more antelope if it just walked into the mother's teeth, but hey they'd eaten well so no need to fret if not.

Off they sauntered, as only the queen and prince of the jungle can do.  Back to their den.

Wow.  That's providence.  Next time I must be specific and pray I get to see an adult male.

We'd been so transfixed by the miracle spectacle of these lions drinking right in front of us that we were late now for our ferry crossing over the Nile.  So, we had a picnic of boiled eggs, groundnuts, sesame cakes and bananas on the banks of the great river.  In the distance were some volcanoes.  

As we were enjoying the view, some baboons had been getting closer.  Oyobo was sitting outside; we were in the car, terribly overheating but safe from the baboons.  We thought.

One jumped onto the roof of the car.  My window was open six inches.  A dirty hand was thrust into the car.  I pressed and pressed but the window wouldn't wind up.  Oyobo had the keys.

He thought quick, though.  He flung his banana one side of the vehicle, and the big hairy burglar went off in pursuit.  Oyobo jumped in and wound up the windows.  Who needs sub-35 temperatures when there are baboons about?

He was about to punch you in the face, Oyobo said, grinning in his new status as hero.  He was going to punch you to disorient you and enter the car and steal your bags.

I'd take on a lion any day before one of those brutes.

Our vehicle crosses the Nile
Keeping cool
At 2 pm, the boat arrived.  As a ferry transported the car to the other bank, we took the cruise boat down the river.  We watched antelope take their chances at a good drink of water from the river's edge.  We lost count of the hippo.  

We had a close encounter with some crocodile.  One in particular was barely arm's length from the side of the boat, basking in the hottest part of the day.  It slowly opened and closed its mouth.  Our guide reassured us he wasn't anticipating a nice meal of Irish visitor, but was regulating his body temperature through his mouth, because the scales keep heat trapped inside.
Also keeping cool.  Phew.  I thought he was poised to bite.

Normally, you'd see giraffe and elephant come down to the water's edge.  Not today - the morning's rain kept them away.  Still, who cares when you've seen lions up close and personal?

The water got choppier and scummier as we came close to the Falls themselves.  The mighty River Nile, having flowed from its source near Jinja, from Lake Victoria to Lake Albert and through this lush, vibrant National park on its way to Sudan, Egypt and the Mediterranean, is squeezed at this point through a six-metre cleft in the rock.  That's some power.  

That's around when we saw African eagle.  

From the south bank, it was a bumpy drive through Rabongo Forest towards Masindi, where we'd spend our last night in Uganda.  Our last night for this trip, of course.

The Mighty Nile is squeezed through a 6m cleft

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Fan Seeks Football Team

The pre-birthday existential angst is manifesting itself in a whole new way this year.  I've decided my new year's revolution is to choose and support a football team.

Too many Mondays in work and education, I've been unable to join in discussions about weekend matches.  I don't know any managers now the cross Scottish one has left Man U.  (I do actually know his name, it just slips my mind .... Fergie!  That's the one!  Either Alex or Alasdair Ferguson.)

And there's one whose name even sounds like his team ... Arsenal.  Arsen Wenger?

I'm stumped when it comes to the off-side rule.  I understand it in a diagram, but on the TV screen it happens too fast.  I stare at the screen during a match, but I just follow the crowd's lead.  Is this too honest?  (I happen to know I'm by no means alone in doing this but I won't name names.)

Anyways, so I decided recently that I must not become a theological bore.  I'm not musical, so the other fast-acting social glue available to me is football.

I know plenty of people who feign interest in the beautiful game in order to fit in.  I never even bothered to.  Figured, why should I be something I'm not?  Better to be authentic, different if needs be.

I'll tell you why.  Ministry.  I need small talk in order to engage people without going straight for the theological jugular.  Not for any dodgy, manipulative evangelizing purpose, but to be a well-functioning member of larger society.

So, this is the year I learn to appreciate football, and crucially, support a team.  I never understood why people felt such loyalty to a team from a far-off city they have no link to, when their success depends on international financial transactions more than any sense of local pride.  But I divert ...

I'm going to go the whole nine yards.  Not a quirky European team, it's got to be an English premier league or first division team.  I couldn't do Scottish football, far too sectarian.

So, if you have any suggestions other than Man United (I couldn't quite go that mainstream), for an as yet team-less fan, please tell me in no more than thirty words why your team deserves my support.

Choroko with sticky rice and chapattis

This dish does not look pretty, but it tastes good!

We had this a few times in Uganda.  Juliette, who cooked for us, was unsure at first - she felt she should be giving us more meat.  But we loved her traditional Lugbara food: rice and cabbage, white beans and garlic, courgette in groundnut paste, and this yummy stew of mung beans.  

I wish there was another name for mung beans.  The name doesn't do them justice.  They are delish.

Choroko (mung bean stew) with sticky rice and chapattis

It's easy to make.  Soak two cups* of mung beans for 6 hours or overnight.  Rinse, boil in plenty of water for 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, saute** two onions until soft and translucent, then add four (yes, four!) cloves of garlic, a teaspoonful of ground coriander and half a teaspoonful of cayenne pepper.  A minute or two later, add a can of chopped tomatoes, and season well.

When the beans are soft, drain them and add two thirds to the tomato mixture.  Mash the rest up before you add them, with a cup of water, as that'll help thicken it up a bit.

Cook on a medium heat for another 10-15 minutes.

Now, my sister-in-law recently told us she makes her rice in the microwave and it comes out nice and sticky.  So, microwave some basmati rice.

Ugandans serve choroko with chapattis.  I found an easy peasy recipe for gluten-free ones.  Put a cup of gram (chickpea) flour in a bowl.  Add a tablespoonful of olive oil.  While stirring, add up to a cup of warm water.  You won't need the whole cup - don't let it get too sticky, but if it does just add more flour.  Make four balls, roll them flat, and dry-fry for a minute on each side.  They're ready to turn when bubbles rise.

Of course, if you want to be really authentic, you'll scoff it down using your right hand instead of cutlery!  

* Measuring cups are the way to go.  Americans are on to a good thing.
** How do you do an acute accent on Blogger?

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Sundays in Uganda

Sarah and I with Collins from whom 
we have learned so much about ministry
The first service is at 7.15 am, and it's the most well attended of three.  Although very few people are there when it starts other than the worship band and choir.  Even the clergy arrive a bit late.

We process in during a rousing rendition of 'The River' by Brian Doerksen.  I barely knew this song before I heard it in Emmanuel Cathedral but it's a great start to a service.  We line out to reverence the altar together - the provost, vicar, Sarah and I, and the readers.  In fact, no one really walks past without a quick bow - worship leaders, ushers, wardens.  Ugandans know how to do Anglicanism in this respect.  Everybody's a bit of everything when it comes to churchmanship here.  Lightly charismatic worship with uplifted hands, evangelical approach to the Bible, liberal social concern for the world outside, and catholic reverence for the Holy Communion that's set up.  And vestments.  Lots of vestments!

Rev. Collins keeps me right
The service is from the new liturgies of 'Come and Worship'.  It's not a million miles away from Morning Prayer in the Church of Ireland, but fewer canticles.  They project it onto a screen at the front, and the congregation (filling up by now, maybe several hundred) look like they believe every word of what they're saying.  It's essentially a prayer book service, but it doesn't feel like one because people look up and look enthusiastic.

Just a short sermon.  Thirty minutes or so.

Leading morning worship
from 'Come and Worship'
As the service continues, wardens bring bottles of Rwenzori mineral water to us.  One sits on the altar alongside the bread and wine.  What would they say if I set up a bottle of Evian on the communion table at home?

Leaders slip seamlessly in and out of the liturgy, engaging the congregation naturally and warmly but with no frothy blah-blah-blah.  A massive mic floats around as clergy and others share out the service, dropping out every few sentences as batteries run low.  But to compensate, the keyboard, guitars and drums are hooked up to an amp and PA system so as to reverberate across the greater West Nile region.  It's about decibels rather than clarity!

There's a measure of comfort in a hand-held mic when preaching.  By now, there were close to a thousand people in the cathedral.  My biggest congregation yet, probably ever.  What could I say to these people that would connect, relate?  Oh well, give'em a few words in the local language.  Yesu ru ma ovo inzizaro!  (Jesus' name be praised!)  They laughed.  OK so I butchered their language ... but they laughed.

I take the cash ...
The offertory is a sight to behold.  It's not really a cash economy, and rather than put a couple of grand into the collection bags (several thousand Ugandan shillings isn't that much), some bring a 'hand' of bananas, a basket of mangoes or a goat.  The goats offered were not sacrificed, you'll be relieved to know, but were 'offered' so they could be sold for church funds.  Or provide clergy with some milk or failing that some meat, as part of a stipend. 

... but the provost receives the goat!
Then the Eucharist.  To avoid the spread of HIV or hepatitis, it's administered by intinction (dipping), which I prefer by far to using a thousand tiny cups.  The wafers are made mainly of rice flour, so coeliac moi can even join in!

Holy Communion service

Many bow low as they receive the bread and wine.  They have a high regard for the sacrament here.  But one man gets onto his hands and knees and practically crawls towards us.  He's wearing a white suit, he looks rather well-to-do, and generally it's lower class people who bow the lowest.  Later, I ask about this man.  He was a general in Idi Amin's army.  He did a lot of bad things.  He bows so low because he feels so penitent.  I don't know what to make of all this.

Holy Communion service

It's hot under a surplice.  When at last we recess out into the sunshine and back to the vestry, I neck a couple of bottles of water.  And they serve us breakfast.  Why did we have those mangoes this morning?  Milky chai, groundnuts, boiled eggs, bread.

Another two services back to back, after which second brunch and then lunch will be served.  Each service will last a couple of hours or thereabouts.  The record was 3.5 hours (a Lugbara language service, by the way, so we didn't understand much of it!)
In the vestry, so eating lunch number ...
actually, who's counting?

While all this is going on, there are a thousand Sunday School kids, divided into five classes.  We were invited into a class one week to teach them the story of the prophet Samuel anointing a new king from Jesse's sons.  That was a real highlight of the three weeks!  As you can see from the photo, I was really getting into enthusiastic narrator mode, while some of the children acted out the scene.

Jesse said, 'Look how big and strong this son of
mine is.  Surely he should be king!'
Liveliest Sunday School class I've
ever taught!

After a lunch in the vestry, there might be a last-minute invitation to a wedding anniversary reception.  Meaning another lunch!  Otherwise, it was home about half three for a quick rest and some preparation for the next working day.  Which started at 7 am!

Zzzzzz said the mosquitoes.  Lights out, mosquito net tucked in, and before long at all we couldn't hear the bats drop fruit on the tin roof any more because we were zonked and fast asleep.

Recessional hymn after the Lugbara
service (#3)

Last day in Arua with my mentor,
Uber-Pastor Collins

What a congregation of 1000 looks like leaving church. 

Monday, 26 May 2014

Weekdays in Uganda

‘Did you have a nice time in Uganda?’

What do you say?  Where to start?  It was amazing. 

Sarah and I have just finished a three week placement in Madi West Nile diocese.  We were attached to Emmanuel Cathedral in Mvara, just outside Arua.  It’s a short drive from the Congo border, and not that much further the other way to South Sudan. 

It’s green.  Really green.  The BA flight there took us over places you hear about on the news: Benghazi, the Darfur Mountains, Juba.  When we flew over the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, it looked like cloud, or maybe the Arctic, underneath us.  The polar landscape turned lunar as the ground turned white to grey, before the dust turned to golden Saharan sand.  And it went on and on.  For hours.  The time it took to cross Europe was roughly what it took to cross this cosmos of sand dunes.  Massive.  And empty.  Often you fly over remote places, but there’s always a light somewhere.  A few houses in the Atlas Mountains or some sign of human civilization in the middle of Turkey.  But in the Sahara and across much of Sudan, there was nothing. Just sand.

It seemed immediate, when we entered Ugandan airspace, that the ground below us was suddenly verdant.  Welcome to the Pearl of Africa.

After a rest day in Entebbe on the shores of Lake Victoria, we flew Eagle Air to Arua.  After just an hour, the ten-seater descended over lush forest and the River Nile, and landed at the airstrip (there’s no airport building).  Arua town is a chaotic, bustling place, a mainly Muslim centre full of traders and traffic from neighbouring countries.  
Mvara Road mainly frequented by boda-bodas (moto-taxis)

Out the other side is Mvara, a semi-rural ‘holy acre’ of Anglican activity surrounded by traditional straw-thatched huts and rich agricultural land.  If you spit an apple pip into the ground here, you’ll have an orchard in no time.

But khat grows easily here too, a shrub whose leaves induce euphoria, loved by Saudi youth who import it as well as local young people who chew it to escape everyday boredom.

We were taken to the Diocesan Centre to meet the provost of the cathedral, our clergy mentors Alice and Collins, and other staff.  It was our first experience of Ugandan hospitality.  The secretary made tea, and bowed almost to the floor as she announced she was going to pray before we served ourselves.  Then she came to me with a jug of water and a bowl for me to wash my hands.  I’ve done this before in an Ethiopian restaurant, thought I.  But my quick rub and rinse wasn’t good enough, I was told.  So I was given a second chance to wash my hands thoroughly.  Hmmm so it’s not a ceremonial thing.

After the chai (the tea was made with hot milk and lots of sugar) we were supposed to go to our house, unpack, rest and maybe have some preparation time.  But we were about to learn how the next week would pan out.  Can you come to a Fathers’ Union service at 4?  Can you give a short message?  A sermon of about 15 minutes?

There’s only one answer to that when you’re on a placement and trying to make a good impression. 

The day starts early in Africa: sunrise seen from our kitchen
Many work days started at 7 am.  African life starts early.  The alarm went at six, just in time for a spectacular sunrise and a breakfast of bananas and mangoes.  The latter were in season, abundant and just falling off trees everywhere you looked. 

The next week was a gruelling schedule, as we tried to fit in as many school visits as possible before the holidays.  So we visited primary schools.  A delight.  And vocational training schools, for tailors, mechanics and others.  Wonderful.  A teacher training college.  Everywhere we went, we were treated like royalty.  Like Wills and Kate, we were driven to each scheduled place, paraded in to roaring applause, and sat at the front where we were bigged up before being invited to speak.

We never failed to marvel at the behaviour of the children.  There’s no way in Ireland hundreds of kids would behave so well.  Their school assemblies involved some crazy dancing, enthusiastic praise and worship.  The kids moved as one, like the whole school were one organism.  
An active listening story: show me your terrified face!

The highlight?  When I visited the sick and administered Holy Communion by extension.  In one morning, we took the sacrament to a sample of ten homes around the cathedral where there were sick and bed-ridden parishioners.  Some were old and immobile; some were barely aware of anyone in the room and had to receive the sacrament spoon-fed with help from a relative.  Some were in mud huts.  All welcomed me in like an honoured guest and offered hospitality in the form of chai or millet porridge.  

Just a small portion for me please, I've already
eaten several times!
I've never experienced hospitality like it.  We soon realized we didn't need to plan lunch.  Everywhere we went we got boiled eggs, groundnuts and milky drinks.  And the 'roast dinner' of Northern Uganda ... we had that a few times a day!  For special occasions like receiving a guest (as well as weddings, farewells, anniversaries), it's a gut-busting, high-carb feast.  You start with a big slice of enyasa, a sort of porridge made with millet.  Then there are potatoes, rice, beans, spinach, cabbage, meat and chicken.  Every part of the animal and bird, nothing wasted.

Ever seen The Vicar of Dibley Christmas Special?  The one where she has to eat four Christmas lunches?  One day, we had that rather heavy meal five times (Sarah had it a sixth)!  I learned that clergy are offered a lot of food and need tactics to decline some politely.

There isn't much to do after dark in Africa.  We were asleep by 8.30 most evenings, safely tucked under the mosquito net, with only the sound of the bats dropping fruit from the trees above our tin roof.  Resting up for the next day.  

Well, that's what happened on weekdays.  Next time, the marathon Sunday services!  

Zzzzzzz.  Not us.  The mosquitoes.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Running Wild (16 Weeks To Go)

Marathon training has commenced in style.

On Saturday, I ran in the Wicklow Mountains National Park.  We were in Glendalough for a last-minute mini-break.  Fortunately, the storm-battering that was forecast for the weekend didn't happen.  We had beautiful fresh weather, with even glimpses of the sun.  

Our room overlooked the Monastic City itself.  'City' here means the ruins of a cathedral, round tower, priests' house and a few other ancient buildings, as well as lots of time-eroded standing crosses and gravestones.  Magical.  All dating back to the 6th Century and a certain St. Kevin.

So my first official training run was a bit special.  Across the wooden bridge over the Glendasan River, swollen by the recent rain, was the Monastic City.  There, I turned onto the boardwalk that makes the boggier land accessible, but after the recent rain it felt more like walking on water.  Three deer wandered out from the bare trees, probably forced out into the open by the fact that said trees were waist-height in flood water.

Along the side of the Lower Lake, there were lots of hardy sheep, and hardy tourists too.  The path curved round to the Information Centre, a veritable Hansel and Gretel house, and a much steeper path up to Poulanass waterfall.  Always good to visit waterfalls after heavy rain.

Next it was the edge of the Upper Lake, in a beautiful ice-gashed valley in the recess of Wicklow Gap, along the Old Miners' Road.


Now, I know not every run these next 16 weeks can live up to that first one.  So, my marathon book.  This week's pearl of wisdom is about having an internal locus of control.  That means instead of worrying about all those factors I can't control, I should take charge of what I can make happen.  And do it.

So yesterday, when it was fr-fr-fr-freezing here in Dublin, and I had a New Testament essay to be working on, I'll admit it.  I was tempted to make excuses.  But it's always going to be up to me to make this marathon happen.  So out I went.

This time, in suburban South Dublin.  From the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, it's a skip and a jump to some very nice parkland along the Dodder River.  Not that I ever skip or jump the first 'k' or so of any run.  Those first 10 minutes are often the hardest.  My brain screams that I've eaten too recently, or not wrapped up well enough, or am off my rocker if I ever thought I could run the length of myself.

One great thing about running is learning to ignore the voices in your head that say unhelpful, sometimes quite nasty, stuff.  And having an internal locus of control means you can pretty much make things happen for yourself, and not just accept what you have now.  Yeah yeah I know.  Psycho-babble.

But it works!

So I tried hard to tell myself 'This feels good.  I can do this.  It's getting easier.  I enjoy running.  This makes me feel alive!'  And I actually started believing my own self-induced hype and had a great run!

And it started to snow!  I could barely see a thing in front of me, just the rushy waters of the Dodder beside me and occasional bundled-up figures emerging with dogs.

A second magical run in my first week.  And if I'd looked at the ominous clouds and chickened out, I'd never have had that amazing feeling of running inside a shaken-up snow globe.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Doña Cucha's Kitchen

Situated in the fertile breadbasket region in the heart of Bolivia, Cochabambinos get to enjoy the produce of the whole country: giant Andean corn on the cob, delicious sweet potatoes and yuca from the tropical lowlands, meaty surubi fish from tributaries of the Amazon, crunchy whole ispis from Lake Titicaca, grapes from Tarija, ... it's a paradise for lovers of good, natural food.

I lived with the Amestegui family for six months, during which time grandmother Doña Cucha was in charge of the kitchen from Monday to Friday.  Her husband is from La Paz, her daughter-in-law's family from Oruro, but she is a true Cochala in her roots - and her love of good food.

On the few occasions when I cooked for friends, I hid the supermarket receipts from her view.  She could have bought the ingredients much cheaper and probably better quality then I ever could as a gringo in the ferocious La Cancha, the city's huge market, the biggest in Latin America.  
The nerve shattering La Cancha Market

To be honest, I didn't learn much practical technique from her.  I think the idea that a foreign male could ever make a decent sopa de mani or plato paceño tickled her.  Anyways, I'd only have held her back.  Soon after breakfast, when I was starting Spanish lessons for the morning, she was already sitting in the sun peeling broad beans, pounding meat, simmering stock.

Bolivian meals, in the main, are quite simple.  Apart from a few of the hearty soups, most dishes are uncomplicated, with few creamy sauces or fancy accompaniments.  Surprisingly to many visitors, the national cuisine can be quite subtle - rice is gently cooked with a clove of garlic and a piece of green pepper, just to give a hint of the buen sabor.

For example, plato paceño (La Paz lunch plate).  A steamed cob of supersize Andean corn, pale straw-yellow and juicy; some broad beans, a cube of fried cheese, and an assortment of potatoes: a boiled potato, maybe a few ocas (like anyas), and (unfortunately for the uninitiated) chuños, blackening, freeze-dried potato cubes.

Another staple (mostly served on Wednesdays, I think) was plato cubano (Cuban lunch plate).  Rice was mixed with vegetables (carrots, peas), and topped with a fried egg and a few slices of fried plantain.

These dishes were brought to life with a teaspoonful of the fiery llajua, a hot salsa made of tomatoes, onions and the unmistakable bite of local aji chillies.

Now, in one respect, Doña Cucha was not the most typical of Bolivian cooks.  She aimed to make healthy meals, and used a fraction of the oil used in most Cochabamba kitchens, and less meat.  For me, her signature dish was quinoa 'lasagne'.  Her husband Don Lucho took great care to eat well as a preventative medicine.  Every second Bolivian you meet has had or needs to have their gall bladder removed, and/or has terrible gastric problems exacerbated by greasy meals.  So it was when I ate out that I tried the more gut-busting Cochabamba specialities pacumutu, silpancho, and pique a lo macho.

But when I reminisce about Bolivian food, it's Cucha's that I miss.

Looking back on those first six months in Bolivia, some of my happiest memories are around that dining table.  A family, united around traditional, home-cooked food.  All followed by a piece of tropical fruit for dessert (pink mango, chirimoya 'custard apple', pineapple, or papaya), a forceful café destilado, and a little siesta.

Lots of volunteers and missionaries go to Cochabamba to learn Spanish, and many end up staying.  They say it's the eternally spring-like climate that keeps them there - but what tempted me to stay longer was my stomach.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014


This sauce will change your life!


  • 2-3 long red chillies, seeds removed, finely chopped
  • 10-12 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
  • 2 large handfuls finely chopped curly-leaved parsley, leaves only
  • 4 heaped tsp dried oregano
  • 2 tsp sea salt flakes
  • 5 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 4-5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 tbsp cold water


1.  Tip the chopped chillies and garlic into a bowl.
2.  Add all remaining ingredients and stir well until combined.
3.  Cover with a sheet of cling film, and leave aside overnight for flavours to come together.

Serve on juicy steak!  (or anything else - chicken, fish, pizza ...)

Monday, 20 January 2014


When I started out blogging, I was a born-again runner.  The evangelical kind of runner who bores anyone who'll listen about tempo, wicking material or pronation.  Pre-conversion, I thought 'pronation' was a Hungarian right-wing bloc.

I made a couple of converts, too.  They probably thought if I can run, anybody can.

After my first-and-only half marathon, with no goal, the running became more and more sporadic.  I tried at college last semester to run three times a week, but soon gave in to the heavy workload and shunned the dark mornings.

New year, new concerted effort.

I've signed up for a marathon.  Bold move, I know.  Potentially foolish, in light of the commitment required and the fact I was high on New Year resolve.  But I've done it now.

Running is as good for the mind as it is for the heart (or indeed waistline).  It's incredible how in the past I managed to push myself when there was that goal of the half marathon.  I had a tick-chart on the fridge door which I initialled and dated after every single run.  It's a mental thing.

So, I'm running regularly again.  I have a tick chart in my room at college.  And a book.  You need a book about running, to run.  If you're me.

I'm laying the ground for the next few weeks.  Not lying on the ground (although I'm forced to do that too after a hard run), but getting back into a routine and getting the old bones and muscles used to moving again, so the next phase isn't such a shock to the system.

Then, according to my book, if I follow the 16 week plan I will finish the Walled City Marathon on 1st June.  It comes with a guarantee.  By that date, if all goes according to plan, I will have finished a second semester of ordination training plus a three-week placement in Uganda.  Dangers along the way include a possible week in France (le vin, le fromage) and the inevitable essay frenzy before Easter.

Thanks for reading - I'm accountable to you now.  If I don't write about running again soon, please ask me what page of the book I'm on.

This is my book, 'The Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer' by
Whitsett, Dolgener and Kole, published by McGraw-Hill, 1998. 

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Turner Prize 2013

At last, Sarah and I made it to the Turner Prize 2013 exhibition, albeit on its last day, in 2014.

Now, last year I went on a guided tour of the Ebrington site and let me tell you, inside those ex-army buildings it was damp, peeling, and not conducive to an appreciation of art.  What they've done to the old barracks to make it such a fantastic gallery space is sheer brilliance.  Hopefully we get to keep it beyond City of Culture year.

Gallery 1 first.  David Shrigley thought the piece for which he was nominated didn't actually work in the gallery, so he exhibited another.  He seems a playful guy who can laugh at himself and tease his critics.  Apparently, he has a rep for not being very good.  So, for the Derry exhibit, he set up a rather roughshod model in the middle of the room, surrounded by chairs, artist's materials at the back.  Yes, it was a life drawing class!  Shrigley's model is designed in deliberately strange proportions - trailing arms, paunch, gaping ears.  The 'finish' isn't elegant.  A mediocre high school art student could have produced the visual.

But of course the 'art' was the experience, the challenge. The most technically brilliant sketcher would inevitably produce a drawing reminiscent of a novice with no feel for perspective, thus levelling out participants and making it accessible, perhaps humbling the artistically proud at the same time.

More fun than attempting my own piece was looking at the ones posted around the gallery.  It wasn't just perspective that bore on individual results, but people seemed to see the same thing albeit from various angles, and yet see something entirely different: some dressed him, coloured him, bent him completely out of shape, in order to represent what they saw, or felt.

Gallery 2 housed the winning installation, Wantee by Laure Prouvost, a French artist resident in North West England.  We entered Grandma's kitchen, full of teapots and dirt.  On the screen we viewed a docu-film about ... well, several strands of narrative, enriched (fragmented?) by interruptions, overlaid voices and captions, noises.  Crucially, we were viewing the film from within the set.  The boundary between fact and fiction, observer and observed, was blurry and in flux as the film rolled.  

Entering an adjacent room, sloping carpeted floor, pink walls on one of which was a small screen with abstract images, another layer was added. What was real, and what was art?  What was mistake and what was deliberate?

We left that one wondering.  Would anyone else have attached the same meanings to things as we had?  Talking that one out, tying up any ends, would have defeated the purpose.  It just felt that disorientation was intended, not as an impetus to understanding, but for its own sake.  

In some ways, the whole Turner Prize thing can seem quite didactic.  Postmodern values are hammered home quite clearly.  The expert is brought low and participation widened.  The line between art and observer is erased, and any notion of correct interpretation is made impossible, even ridiculed.  The whole experience is permeated with a sense of playfulness.  But it comes across as a bit preachy nonetheless.  We are clearly being taught, told; and our questions are left hanging, like they are impertinent attempts to violate and domesticate.

We discerned  a gentler approach in Lynette Yiakom-Boakye's portraits in Gallery 3.  The subjects of her paintings look alive, idiosyncratically enjoying a moment, too real to be representations.  Cloaked in darkness, some in grass, or their own shoulders, there are few clues to their lives and times.  All black, the viewer's suppositions are challenged.  Not daring to stereotype, I found myself readjusting my initial interpretation.  Was I responding to deliberate cues or was I just bringing my own preconceived frames?  

Each portrait hung with no title, no blurb, no date or biography.  Just a painting of a person, and an interpreter, with a space in between to fill.  It was a bit disconcerting to be made so aware of what space there is between reader and text to be filled, and to consider the power of the reader.

The big question always is, 'but is it art?'  Of course it is.  Not the kind you want hanging above your mantelpiece.  

But it got us to react.  Tick.

Monday, 6 January 2014


The Long Walk 
Until the processional hymn started one Sunday recently, I thought it was just a turn of phrase to describe your knees as knocking.  But mine quivered quite definitely as I stepped into the nave of the cathedral, eyes fixed on the prayer desk a long, long way in the distance.

Before Christmas, I was on placement for two months at St Columb's Catherdal here in Derry.  It was a Sunday-only placement, so basically it was in-parish training at leading various bits of services.

I chose St Columb's for several reasons.  Mainly, it's close to home and I already travel 3.5 hours on Sundays during term time.  Also, cathedrals tend to be on the formal side of worship so a good option for learning the 'rules', which later in other parish contexts I might be more inclined to bend.  

St Columb's Catherdal, the highest point in the city,
dedicated to the saint who founded Derry as a monastic site
in the fifth century
The first week, I went along to observe.  The Dean has done an amazing job in these days marked by dwindling congregations -- there were about three hundred regular parishioners there plus visitors.  That's up from when Dean Morton started.  We had a beautifully printed booklet-style order of service.  It was a big service - a Eucharistic celebration marking 400 years of relationship between The Honourable The Irish Society and the walled city it planted here in North-West Ireland.  The Bishop of London was there, the Right Reverend and Right Honorable Richard Chartres DD KVCO to give him his full title.  The civic functions of the Cathedral would be a recurring theme of my later reflections: Remembrance Sunday at the Diamond, the Festival of Nine Carols and Lessons, attended by mayors, councillors, a representative of the Queen even.  That was all quite strange to me, a new-ish Anglican who spent the intervening years in various free churches.

That first visit, I felt a bit like I was in a plane, and we passengers heard voices from the cockpit but we couldn't really see.  Partly because there's an enormous choir at the front between the congregation and the sanctuary where clergy sit, and partly due to beautiful carvings atop each pew end, unfortunately for someone of my little stature, just at eye level.  But our worshipful flight was smooth and at all times I felt myself securely in the hands of people well-trained to do what they do.  The choristers in particular sounded worthy of recording.  It just took some getting used to, joining my prayer to the voices of the 'pros' instead of saying and singing it all congregationally.

A week later, I robed and reported for duty.  And as I say, it was a long, long walk to the front.  That first morning, I reverenced the altar (do they even do that here? there aren't any candles on the altar!) and slipped into my seat at the south end of the altar.  Or as I still like to call it, right turn.  I knew there was a sequence of bowing to my seniors but I didn't even tackle that the first week.

As I said intercessions, I realized I was now the disembodied voice from the front.  It was disconcerting, I thought, not to see the congregation, not to make eye contact.  As always, what most terrifies me is the practical stuff - turning on and off the radio mic is a particular concern of mine; no one needs to hear me strain to sing the melody of the offertory hymn if I forget the off button!

Then, I assisted at communion.  It was the first time in a long time I'd used the first form of the service.  Rather than 'The blood of Christ keep you in eternal life' said to each communicant, it was the wordier (though very lovely) 'The blood of our Lord Jesus which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life; drink this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and be thankful'.  I had the honour of administering the Promise Chalice, and thankfully there were no major mental blocks (although a few people did get an abbreviated version of the words of administration).

Mistakes, I made a good few.  Once when taking the collection plate from the church wardens to give it to the Canon presiding at communion, I trod on my cassock on the step.  There were many kilos of coinage on the very large, solid silver plate and it almost turned ugly.  I learned that sometimes you have to point your toe and step very straight, like a tango move, to avoid a cassock disaster.  Funny the things you need to learn.

Much more importantly, as the weeks passed, I became increasingly aware that as big and important as the cathedral is, it's still a parish church.  The Parish of Templemore takes in a good swathe of the city centre and, crucially, the Fountain, that last Protestant enclave west of the Foyle.  It's where people get baptized, married, have funeral services.  As you enter, as well as carvings and plaques, there's a shopping trolley for donated food items to be distributed.  It's a living community of ordinary people from all walks of life.  It's not primarily a tourist attraction or a museum, or even guardian of the older traditions of the Church of Ireland.  It's a church community.  And a vibrant one at that.

Eight Sundays just wasn't enough, in the end.  I still don't know exactly when to stand/sit/kneel/walk/bow, but that doesn't worry me so much any more.  I know now that cathedral worship is still worship, and a cathedral is still a church.