Tuesday, November 07, 2017

La Vara de San José, Isaías 7:14

6 November 2017

This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.' Now all this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:

Look! the virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel, a name which means 'God-is-with-us'.

When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home; he had not had intercourse with her when she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Extremely Short Stories from Tehran

People have voiced some doubts about me accepting a work trip here, but I told myself that if a country has given the rest of the world Laleh Pourkarim, Marjane Satrapi and Mehdi Sadaghdar, then it can't be that bad at all. So let's go for it

Laleh the Swede, Marjane the cartoon character, and Mehdi the madman who starts fires for giggles
"Why have you come to Iran for just four days?" wailed Fr. Paul Lawlor, when I went to see him at St. Abraham's Church, Tehran. "You only have time for Tehran; there's nothing to see here!" I must agree that the material and natural treasures of Persia is something that is immense and not even easily covered in two weeks, but a leave quota is a leave quota and, all things considered, Iran has given me more than I had hoped to handle in just four days. So here is a rough summary of the trip, given in my habitual format of extremely short stories.

16 September: The Visa Lady

After disembarking, the first person I met in Tehran was the Visa Lady. The people at Imam Khomeini Airport had thought it suitable to plant this petite lady in front of the visa office as the coordinator, because the said lady also happened to be a thunderous sasspot who threw thrice her weight and made her presence known constantly. Walling herself into a perimeter with tape barriers, the Visa Lady was able to deal with the tourists, one by one, without any hint of being ruffled whatsoever. "You! Go to the insurance counter. You! Go and line up at the bank terminal. You! Go sit in the corner and wait!". There must have been a hundred of us, with just one Visa Lady! Occasionally she gave visa inquiries a pause and let loose a strident announcement: "Where is my pen? Somebody has taken my pen -- Give me back my pen!" Her voice sliced through the air like a scimitar, jerking awake a few tourists who were beginning to doze off in their seats, and the pen was always returned sheepishly to its rightful owner. Just the one lady, and her one pen!

17 September: The Two Mareks

The two Mareks are father and son. The son is a hardened traveller who is addicteed to biking and has arrived at Tehran after a few months cycling on the road from the Czech Republic through Romania and Turkey into Iran, and the father tags along (after much persuasion from his son Marek) for good fatherly company. We had breakfast together. Breakfast was splendid because of koloocheh, flat buns infused with cardamom and fillings of brown sugar. The other highlight is feta, which, to the great surprise and confusion of Masoud, are made from cow's milk in this country.

17 September: Masoud, the Kurdish Guy who runs the Hostel

Masoud comes from Bookan, in far west of Iran, where he grew up speaking Kurdish. He learned Farsi only after he started his undergraduate studies. His Persian friends could never believe it whenever he told them that part of his history. What a shame -- If only we spent the morning singing Xoş e Hewreman together and left the other guests no peace to eat their breakfast! He wished me luck with the presentation as I checked out to visit the Chaldeans, and I left too soon.

17 September: The Chaldeans

Click for slideshow
St. Joseph's Cathedral lies halfway between the metro stations Ferdowsi and Taleghani, and I walked there on foot after a ridiculously sumptious breakfast. Half an hour before mass, Archbishop Ramzi Garmou and five other people were chanting the rosary at the foremost pews. This went on for a while and I was scared that these were all the people that could be had in mass. Thankfully, more people joined over the hour to fill the pews, so that by communion time there were about fifty of us in the church, including the two bishops and deacons at the sanctuary. It was a Chaldean liturgy, all in Aramaic (their native as well as liturgical language), and very traditional. The women wore veils, I mean headscarves, well alright -- that was what they had to wear in the streets anyway. Communion was given in both species. The half-English liturgy sheet I had procured from the Detroit Chaldeans was helpful, even though not followed to the letter. I did not understand the homily in Aramaic, so I used the time to doodle the Archbishop of Tehran in my notebook, and then the High Altar.

Archbishop Ramzi of Tehran, Bishop Jean-Paul of Calatia, and whoever it is who is on their right; has anyone seen that dude before? No one?
Later, during lunchtime, Archbishop Ramzi Garmou said to me that the Chaldean community was native to Iraq, himself being born in Zakho, in the far north of the country. The young Youssef, seated across me, is a seminarian and was at Tel Keppe five months ago where he went to the liberated churches that had been torn up by Daesh. Bishop Jean-Paul Gobel is visiting and is seated at the head of the table as the guest of honour. A local priest who spoke only Aramaic was seated to my right, and to my left two religious sisters (whose names I struggle to recall) who spoke Italian with one another and a mix of French and English with me, using a whichever works approach. The multilingual conversation in that fine and wild lunch spanned topics from Madam Halimah Yaacob to Patriarch Louis Sako, from the Kurdish Independence Referendum to Imam Khomeini Getting A Primary School Named After Himself Again, and from Food Safety Standards in China and to Who's Winning the World Cup. In addition they seemed very interested in Singapore, and loved the picture of my Archbishop incensing Our Lady of Fatima.

The Chaldeans had icons for sale on the shelf. I had been tasked my my mother to buy them home. However, the uncle here said to me that the only guy who has the keys to the cupboard was away at Hamedan for a few days. Drat! It seems I will have to come back to Iran another day to get them.

Gift for the Chaldean community from my parish (need more gifts ugh)

17 September: Mahdi, the Carpet Guy of Tajrish

Mahdi studies Chemistry at the University of Tehran. At night he helps out at his father's carpet store, where one day he came and said "ni-hao" to me and made friends and sold me a carpet so I have something to bring back to my mother. His carpets are made of sheep wool or silk, with different weaving techniques involved. The shop has inexplicable received name-cards from diplomats and other dignitaries for some reason (did these people all have an urgent need for a carpet whenever they stop by Tajrish?). Mahdi wanted to sell two, but I bought one and left and got lost in the market and wound up at the mosque that he liked to pray in. How splendid to have your workplace and your worshipping place right next to each other! I shall enjoy Holy Cross as long as I still can.

18 September: The Watering Holes

Nobonyad Metro Station
Guy who sold me tickets to the metro was hard of thinking. Guy who sold me insurance at the airport lacked his left hand. No, that did not stop them coming out and working and greeting customers like any old fellow. I had trouble with the currency, and just let whoever was there do the math for me. 15,200 Rials... or was it Tomans? I couldn't hear the prices clearly, and the lady at the roadside restaurant laughed at me, took some of the notes from my hand, then handed me the change. Sometimes the change came in coins. Coins are so rare in this country! Termeh from Yazd sewed intricate doilies; a lady and her mother brings them to the metro at Azadi square and sells them. People sold things even on the trains and no one was there to stop them. My instincts were to ignore them, as if they were fraudulent operations, but the couple next to me took a sample insole and bought a few pairs after discussing it intently between themselves. I bought a toothbrush this way! Toys, stationery, lemon juicers, sports bags came to you in rush hour and you bought them all if you were just about to fall asleep and didn't pay attention. Even little toy guns that rattled; you could buy them in case you got bored on the plane and wanted to amuse yourself. Some bored punk came and shot my face twice with one of these annoying trinkets. The day was hot and the metro stations came equipped with what I thought of as Watering Holes, each one a big sink with water fountain taps, and us strangers huddled around for a sip. Tehran water was drinkable everywhere, and it was sweet, like how Singapore water used to be.

18 September: Walking on Streets

Walking the length of Andrazgoo Boulevard was not the most pleasant thing to do on a Sunday evening. The next day I walked to Nobonyad Square, where the roads were narrower, houses were castles and the vegetation lush and manicured. The Ambassador of Venezuela has a place to hide here, where the angry mob has not yet been able to reach. I learned that crossing the road anywhere takes you a roughly 50-50 mix of false confidence and total trust in the goodwill of strangers.

18 September: Saint Abraham's Church

PSA: In case some of you are Jesus freak like me and also happen to want to go to Iran at some point in spring or summer, I have on hand the full mass schedule covering the city; yell for it in the comments! You can choose from mass timings for liturgy in the English, French, Italian, Korean, Assyrian, or Armenian languages. Said schedule has been passed to me by the kind Fr. Paul Lawlor despite his hellishly packed schedule as the only priest of St. Abraham's Church.

St. Abraham's Church sits delightfully close to the metro station at Enghelab Square, and strangely attracts a sizeable following of Persians. Christians, or Muslims who are just visiting? It was hard to tell. The website boast many fruits borne in the community: translations of hymns and prayers to Persian, ecumenical dialogue with Shi'a leaders, artwork, masses, and receiving visiting Dominican fathers from all over the world. That and the Instagram location-based post aggregator of St. Abraham's Church would tell the story much more eloquently than I could ever do, so I leave you with them.

18 September: The Selfie Man of Azadi Square

Gilsie has introduced to me the existence of this hilarious monument. For all the hype surrounding its famed firewall, Iran has not be able to halt the scourge of the selfie.

A similar statue was unveiled the other day at Amasya in Turkey. Vandals stole his phone, so he needs a bodyguard now.

18 September: Niavaran

Niavaran was the Shah's old stomping grounds. Nicolae Ceaucescu was his buddy. His children loved looney tunes, and his wife hoarded modern artwork and pagan idols. Such used to be life in Niavaran.

The Polish scientists said that Niavaran reminded them of the palaces of Communist Poland, the sort one could still find standing in Warsaw.

19 and 20 September: Conference

Yikes! Someone caught me doing my first oral presentation ever
During lunch at the IPM Campus, Majid, Mohsen and gang pressed me into their lunchtime clique and fed me "doogh" just to see what my face looked like afterwards. They were a boisterous group whose impeccable manners and generosity sometimes betrays a primordial mischieviousness. Majid Esmaelzadeh is a Turkish guy (my guess is that it means "Azerbaijani") from Urmia who likes watching Korean drama and making jabs at Farsi speakers. Mohsen Farokhnezhad is from Mashhad and always says "excuse me" if he goes through a narrow doorway first. Salar Abbasi comes from Yazd and laughs a lot, no matter what the joke is. Majid led the group to his hideout in the back garden, where a wooden shack has been built for PhD students seeking refuge from the stresses of work. Curiously, a whiteboard has been installed inside the shack, adorned perennially with equations and diagrams.

"Doogh" turned out to be yoghurt mixed with salty water. The particular version served at lunch came with a touch of mint. Still, it's not everyone's kind of stuff, even if you were from Iran. Majid laughed at me as I chugged the drink and said that it would make me sleep like a log all afternoon. So I nodded back in agreement, and nodded off to sleep for the next two lectures.

16 to 20 September: Tiger Balm

Coming to a place where gift-giving is so much a part of the social fabric, I figured that I might as well participate.

This habit actually started with Chinese tourists in the middle east, particularly Egypt. Despite being made infamous for all kinds of bombastic shenanigans, they have also been welcomed in Egypt for bringing along handy and fun-sized capsules of ointment to give away.
Hey! We make Tiger Balm Oil here in Singapore. We're famous for that stuff!

In a fit of patriotic fervour, I bought a trove of the ointment to give away to taxi drivers and shopkeepers, etc., just anyone I could ever come across. My opinion is that it is a pretty good fit for them: Just as Tiger Balm is used by workers who can surströmming in the smelliest factories of the world, so can it soothe the senses of many a smog-choked Tehrani, or allay the anxieties of the taxi drivers who must make a living in the city's terrifying traffic conditions. I think it's worth trying if you're going there! Giving is its own reward.

The ride back to the airport took two hours. Who would have thought the airport could be located so far away from town? The uncle who drove me looked like he could use Tiger Balm very much. He got to have my remaining two jars, and my short trip to Tehran concludes here. Good bye for now.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Adventures of Beowulf and Godsylla

by Robert LeBlanc (2017) [source]

Meanehwæl, baccat meaddehæle, monstær lurccen;
Fulle few too many drincce, hie luccen for fyht.
Ðen Hreorfneorhtðhwr, son of Hrwærowþeororthwl,
Æsccen æwful jeork to steop outsyd.
Þud! Bashe! Crasch! Beoom! Ðe bigge gye
Eallum his bon brak, byt his nose offe;
Wicced Godsylla wæld on his asse.
Monstær moppe fleor wyþ eallum men in hælle.
Beowulf in bacceroome fonecall bemaccen wæs;
Hearen sond of ruccus sæd, "Hwæt ðe helle?"
Graben sheold strang ond swich-blæd scharp
Sond feorth to fyht ðe grimlic foe.
"Me," Godsylla sæd, "mac ðe minsemete."
Heoro cwyc geten heold wiþ fæmed half-nelson
Ond flyng him lic frisbe bac to fen.
Beowulf belly up to meaddehæle bar,
Sæd, "Ne foe beaten mie færsom cung-fu."
Eorderen cocca-colha yce-coeld, ðe reol þyng.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Spy

Vivid dream in the night. A group of us are in a retreat house in China, coming together and praying and doing whatever you would do on a retreat. The house has two rooms linked by a hallway. By and by I realise that there is a gap between the rooms and a secret room has been set up between them, and a spy from the Communists has been planted inside to observe us and to track our conversations. The room turns out to be just about visible when one looks through a window at the side wall of either of our rooms. The spy is an dolorous middle-aged fellow in a beige jacket, and he mostly watches the screen of his own laptop idly or plods around his room. One of the retreat participants is a tetchy native Chinese man, and he berates me for my curiosity. "Do you want to die?" he shouts. "Do you want to be exposed? Don't look at him!" Now a small toddler boy among us is standing at the window and has been studying the Spy intently, while the Spy stares blankly out over his head. I realise that the windows let light through in the wrong direction -- we can see the Spy, but he cannot see us, only reflections of his own small room. No wonder he looks so glum! When I woke up I decided that the man who had nagged me in the dream was the real snitch. And now it is day and all the myriad activities of day beckon me again.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Adventures with Ignatius Noogent

This is a dream from a while ago. I was in Lincoln, Nebraska, and a white supremacist guy called Ignatius Noogent had emerged from his parents' basement and was going about town hunting down and shooting anyone who looked Asian. I ran down the avenue to avoid his bullets. Eventually I ducked into a building and into something that looked like a classroom. As I hid under the table, I realised that the lights and the ceiling fan were still on. Shit! I can't turn those off now; he'll know that I'm here! Now the gunman had entered the building and was patrolling down the corridor, whereupon I woke up in cold sweat, not just out of a sense of doom, but also because who the heck spells the name as Noogent anyway

Monday, August 28, 2017

Lisbeta Griadina

Source: Michael Sazonov
"My Lady," said the physician Martynov said to Lady Ershebet Yasin, his voice trembling with unease, "I am afraid to tell you that your previous doctors have misdiagnosed your chronic pains, and it is cancer. It has now spread, and there is no way to halt it now. Under the best conditions, you will be able to enjoy another eleven months." On hearing this, her relatives: siblings, nephews and nieces, erupted in tears, unable to suppress their sorrow.

"I understand, doctor," replied Lady Ershebet serenely. "thank you for your efforts in caring for me. You can let me go now, I am ready." Turning to her grieving family, she consoled them. "I'm sorry for making you all suffer so much. I will be missing you dearly!"

"I have never seen anyone face death like this," recounted Martynov of Archangel some time later.

Lady Ershebet Yasin drew up a letter to entrust her possessions to her brother, Iskander. Then she took her walking stick, held a rag between her teeth, and headed for the hills on foot, for she intended to help ministering to the impoverished multitudes there during the eleven remaining months granted to her. The monastery between the lake and the Griadas welcomed her upon her arrival. There they named her Sister Lisbeta, after her name in the old language.

Five years later, Sister Lisbeta passed away in the Griadine House at forty years of age. Six thousand people from near and far attended her funeral mass, including those of her own family. Far from being a sombre affair, the wake was a time of festivities and joyousness, graced by musicians and storytellers as well as animated testimonies from the people whose lives were touched by the Lady in her last years.

"Now as for you, my daughter," said Iskander Yasin to his young daughter, Irannika. "You shall be the satrapess of Raikkosè."

But the girl was not listening. At this moment, the first flock of geese of May had completed their sojourn over the Siberian desert and were now arriving at the lake. There they began filling the air with their cackles, joining their voices with the ruckus on the ground. Squealing with delight, Irannika hopped off her father's lap and ran towards the fields to greet the visitors from the South.

Reference and Source of Brainwaves
  1. The passing of Mother Ruth Pfau of Karachi, Pakistan, on 10 August 2017
  2. The passing of a young saint in Singapore, recalled by Fr. José Lopez on 26 August 2017
  3. Personal recollections

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Haji Thexeira

Source: Reader's Digest Indonesia
- Haji Thexeira, do you remember my son, do you sing his song through all the land?
- Mother, I will sing of my Lord, my Saviour, all my life. Aye, I have seen the Garden Rock that has received his blood, I have traced his footsteps to the cross at Yerushalayim, and I have smelled the fragrance of his open tomb. Mother, I do not forget these things.

Neither do I forget when my enemies dragged me out from the thresh and were about to hang me from a bough with my own lyre-strings. Praise be to Jesus, I am alive now. I was ready to atone for my sins right then, as they had been so grave, so numerous... like so many fatal wounds on the soul, accumulated through my long life. And my Lord had voided it, dispatched of it like so much garbage, and let me walk free from the clutches of the komitadjis -- Alive, in the flesh! And here I live on borrowed time.

I am bathed in warmth in this dream, not the blazing heat of the summer of Canaan, but the balmy warmth of an island in the Torrid Climes. And the Lady -- My Lord, she is beautiful! Her radiance could dwarf the sun! Her serene aspect belies the sight of ten thousand demons defeated, perished at her feet. And there she sits, at a rock at the promontory out on a sandy beach, watching the clouds on the horizon as if the next moment her son -- my Lord -- would return at any moment. I have learned that there is a place of refuge in this country where anyone who fell asleep would dream of her, even if they do not know her story or who she is. Perhaps, we are close to the Mother's House now, nearing the end of our flight. We shall reach safety and be among friends soon.

Presently, three indistinct figures have emerged on the shallows below the Lady's rock. Taking a closer look, I can make out a woman in a soiled, tattered dress. This is Elena, daughter of Mihalis Simoglou. Her children Nikos and Chrysanti follow closely behind her, hand in hand. A wave of joy washes over me; these are people whom I know well and who have welcomed me many times to their home, where I delighted them with songs from my pilgrimages. They are safe from harm, welcomed into the Mother's House. And now the Lady greets Elena with a tight embrace, and now she kisses the children on their foreheads.

Now, I am awake. Dawn has broken and the campfire has become a heap of warm embers. My friend, the boy Galumjan, is still asleep, but he has kicked away his blanket and is shivering violently now. I pull the rug over him again, and hear him mutter: Tuamma, you have killed my brother at Parmiakert. How will I go home now? Who will look after me, who will stand up to my father for me? His arms start to flail violently again; I can only guess that he is trying to flee the lady in his dream. With a heavy heart and a sigh, I tuck the rug securely under his body. I pray to find the people who have fled the raid with us, but how will they forgive Galumjan, since he was one of those who were sent to kill them? But as for me, I shall try to keep him alive for as long as I can.

References and Sources of Brainwaves
  1. Indonesian Catholic folk legend from Larantuka, East Nusa Tenggara Province
  2. The opening of Jesus's Tomb at Jerusalem, October 2016

Friday, August 11, 2017


Source: Henryk Przondziono
A child's voice, distressed, stretched to plaintive wails. Wait, she is coming closer, her footsteps brisk and urgent-- here she sprints, and here her message rings clear to the old man Mihalis, startled awake from slumber: The lads are coming from Shurikoi, she shrieks. Annika's idiot son tried to stop them, and they cut his throat. Leave behind your house, your animals, your possessions. Run, Parmiakert is no longer safe! 

Annika had been a well-loved relative who lived in the next village, Shurikoi, and was also the only reason the Permyaks had been allowed to settle where they were. With both her and her son gone, nothing came in the way of an escalated war between the twin villages. Having been made nervous by persistent threats from the lads at Shurikoi, and news shouted over the hills about the country plunging into general unrest, the Permyaks reacted promptly. Parents woke up their children, barely dressed up, and made for the cover of the surrounding forest.

This all except for Mihalis, his daughter Elena, and her two children, Nikos and Chrysanti. Their home was surrounded by an expanse of field, the closest thicket was too far away to duck into, and they were the closest, out of all the folk, to the approach of the assailing party: They were a gang of thirty or so komitadji, members of the Qarataimir tribe, tall and haughty and marching resolutely to their destiny to wrest their lands once again from the wretches, the unworthy children of the flood. And Mihalis seized his sabre and said to his family: Look, I'm not letting the Taimirs get to you. Before they reach us, I will kill you first. And Elena tucked her children grimly into the far corner of the house.

Now the lads had split up into teams, each one taking to an individual household to slaughter everyone and everything alive and to let loose their appetites for plunder. A deafening blow-- they have come armed with rifles! Where can they have gotten them from? A muffled plea for mercy from the distance, the next building, the dairy mill of Babajan's family. Alas, a travelling bard has heard the warning but only manage to duck into the building, covering himself vainly in the thresh. Poor man; they will break his neck and, in no time, he will be swinging from a tree on his own lyre's strings. Meanwhile, the mill was set ablaze, and Mihalis sensed the ominous crackling of fire, the heat on his face.

A gunshot close by, a deafening, sickening squeal, and another gunshot again which cut it off. They had reached Mihalis's pigpen. One kick, two kicks-- the assailants had shattered the old hemp lashings that held the door planks together. Mihalis counted three men; three had been tasked to dispatch of his family. Forgetting his earlier promises, he hurled himself at the closest one. The lightly-built komitadji was easily knocked over and pinned under the thickset older man. The swoosh of the sabre, the flash of a pistol's muzzle-- Chrysanti wailed in anguish, and Elena tore her gaze away and scrambled to cover her children's eyes with her mantle. Father is dead, Lord, let it be as quick for us as it was for him. Could one ever steady the shivers of mortal fear? Even the most courageous of us pall in the face of death! Elena prayed wordlessly, in that space of a moment which seemed as eternity. And from eternity the words emerged:

A great sign appeared in the sky, 
a woman, clothed with the sun, 
with the moon under her feet, 
and on her head a crown of twelve stars.

The third komitadji lingered timidly at the door, hesitant to come any closer to Elena. Get away from there, Chushinta, you don't know what creature it is that guards them! he called to his surviving companion. Elena waited for Chushinta to do his worst, but what could be taking him so long? And then she prayed:

The accuser of our brothers is cast out,
who accuses them before our God day and night.

Someone else was in the room. The hem of a dress brushed against Elena, who opened her eyes in surprise. How has this lady entered the room? Elena hadn't been looking, and Chushinta apparently did not know. Come away from that woman! the boy shouted from behind him, but his heart had hardened.

He spat on the ground before him. Here he fired his arquebus from the hip at the woman who stood between himself and Elena-- no, it missed, and the room was too dark to hit anything. He threw the arquebus aside, and unsheathing his shortsword he swung it at her, once! -- she did not dodge, and the tip of the blade grazed her right cheek -- twice! -- another gash, alongside the first one. Chushinta raised the shortsword over his head, ready to bring it down to split her down the middle, when he dropped the sword and collapsed, clutching his chest. Elena and her children watched him as he thrashed in the dirt in agony and expired, in a stretch of time which seemed all too long.

A cool breeze blew in through the doorway. The boy who had called Chushinta from there had fled in fright, and none of the others komitadjis paid the house of old man Mihalis any more heed; satiated as they were with laying waste to Parmiakert, they had moved on to the other villages. What had become of the lady who protected the family from them? She has disappeared, as abruptly as she had materialised. Elena and her children sat at the family bed, still huddled together and in a daze, but the next day they found themselves recovered enough to make for the hills.

References and Brainwave Sources
  1. Elena's prayer: Apocalypse 12:1, 12
  2. Polish Catholic folk legend from Częstochowa
  3. The circumstances of the raid, as well as some personal names, have been (almost) lifted from the autobiography of Nikos Kazantzakis.

Thursday, August 10, 2017


Rabbouni, my sins are so great and numerous.
They line my soul like deep, fatal gashes in the flesh.
I should have been dead, perished ten thousand times!
Yet, you persist to keep me among the living.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

San Martín del Pimpollar, up in flames

Source: Pedro Jimènez Veneros, 8 August 2017
The heatwaves have come to Gredos. I hear that the wildfires have turned the field of pine saplings into a sea of flames! O sierra of Gredos, you have accompanied the Great St. Theresa in her journey to the Father, you have cradled me to rest in your embrace. How resplendent are your many natural treasures, how wondrous your crowning joy, Almanzor? How cruelly have our memories been incinerated, consigned indiscriminately to the inferno? Alas, I cannot bear to look back into the past. The glory of days bygone; I no longer want them! Vile and repugnant ignominies have infiltrated the gilded days, and fouled all that is beautiful. Yet just as surely that the pimpollos will sprout again from the blanket of ash, so will I be whole again. My love, when I find you at the end of the earth, let us deliver our souls at Compostela: We shall gaze upon the sierra with fresh eyes; we shall ring the church bell at Navalsauz.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Idiot Son

Vasily Polenov, 1881
Idiot son of Shurikoi, what have you done?
You have plowed the field faithfully all your life,
Now at the roadside your body lies broken.
Poor lost son of Shurikoi, how did you deserve this fate?
You blocked the path of evil men. Your throat they slit,
And the Permyaks they went to slaughter.

Precious son of Shurikoi, from where have you come?
Our lost daughter came home at last from afar,
With guests from Permia by chance a-passing:
Helpless folk whose world was lost in the deluge,
Then the abandoned girl they found and took as their own;
The little one, from infancy they suckled.

Sweet daughter of Shurikoi, how glad the reunion!
Into her old mother's embrace she dove,
Four lines of tears like rivers a-flowing.
Our chief's icy heart became as meltwater,
So moved, that he allotted the wanderers a place to live.
And in the following winter, a baby son she bore.

Beloved son of Shurikoi, how well you grew!
You never uttered a word, yet grew as strong as oxen,
And to the plow and harness they consigned you.
How we have insulted you, belittled you; yet you stood strong,
In your only lucid moment of life, life itself you sacrificed.
O Sainted Son of Shurikoi, hear our thanks in Paradise!

The Demon of Krasnoyarsk

The more experienced traders, among those who transported goods from the Barentines to Taimiria and back, remember that the great avenue used to have its terminus at the city of Ustana Shehir, the first among the great cities of the present time. Presently the road did not end any longer at Ustana, the place being nonexistent, but took a more direct route to the Portage Lines in the interior west, where the rivers flow conveniently west-to-east. The new route also transverses the estuary of the Yenisei where it empties northwards into the Little Ocean. And such a splendid sight it is, from this vantage point along the path, the entire estuary is visible, an expanse of distributaries, eddies and sandbanks, and the querulous murmurings of seagulls and boobies in the distance.

On one of these sandbanks perched the remains of an ostrog, a palace, painted with colors now fading, a tower now crumbling, and windows dead and empty. Half of the house had been appropriated by the neighboring village for building a new hall, and now a lone huntsman ponders the side wing, in case it could be used as his shelter for the night.

THE WATCH TOWER STILL STANDS, THE EAST WING ALL INTACT, a shrill voice cried out from the forest, the source hidden in the long shadows. MY SON, DO YOU KNOW THAT THIS BUILDING IS THE PINNACLE OF CIVILISATION? Hear! The Demon of Krasnoyarsk has dragged the first house of the Permyaks three hundred miles, and has left every single wall and timber unscathed! Hearing this, the huntsman startled and fled, thinking that he had heard a wailing spirit.

The Architect emerged from the forest. He had not noticed the huntsman, nor was he preaching to anyone in particular. Ermak Bayantimur, remember this name! Ustana, once brimming with splendour, is now bare ground. The work of all other builders have been dragged into the sea... And though the castle has been uprooted and carried on the waves, the house itself the Demon has not touched! Let this house speak of your greatness, Ermak Bayantimur!

Some time later, the appointed Bishop of the North Coast reached the estuary, accompanied by a humanist layman from Archangel. The Bishop had never been east of the Yenisei prior to his appointment. On the other hand, his companion had been called often to Taimiria to cure medical aliments, repair equipment and other duties as befitting of an engineer (an old term, meaning warlock or wizard) for the Taimirians. The Bishop had believed such acts of charity as prerogative of the Church, and begrudged the layman often for driving the good Taimirian people from relying on the Almighty.

The wicked kings of Ustana Shehir has brought such misfortune upon themselves, mused the Bishop. He knew that the Permyaks were under the thrall of the dualist religion and had ramped up persecution of the Christians in Taimiria. The previous year's floods which the Demon of Sayano-Shushenskaya had instigated were known to have wiped out the most important members of the Permyak house alongside the innocents. The Bishop muttered a prayer for the dead, then another "for the mercy of the Permyaks", wherever their souls may be. Lastly there followed third prayer, now focused on the ostrog on the sandspit, exorcising it of the fiend Krasnoyarsk.

The Engineer had a different view of the flood. Asbagpasho, he intoned. Your Excellency, the Fiend that you spoke of can be explained by naturalistic means alone. The Demon of Krasnoyarsk is simply a walled lake built by the Soviets in antiquity, when they sought to tame the wild river Yenisei. Now that the Soviets have been snuffed out of history and people no longer populated the South, it was only a matter of time that all the walls they built would crumble and fail. Alas, it was not the waking of the demon, but its death, and the greater Demon, the Yenisei of old, claiming its own! And they headed to the North Coast, where many of the survivors had fled.

Some time later, a man in pauper's clothing was seen to approach the ostrog. He did not respond to any warning calls to stay away. Instead he circled it, stopping occasionally to caress the timbers and the weathered patterns on the door arches. Once or twice he entered the fort, as if attempting to search for a familiar face among the ruins. Then, not having found any living soul in the house, he fell in the sand and wept bitterly until nightfall.

The Krasnoyarsk Hydroelectric Dam [source: Wikimedia Commons]

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Martin of the Field of Pines

I arrived in Europe again once too often, this time for an academic workshop and then a short road trip around the Iberian peninsula. This is a very hasty overview of our story. We were at Cantabria, Portugal and then Sierra de Gredos and were very happy, collecting many memories and stories. I record them here so that we can have a look at them on gloomy days.

The trip was long and varied and is best organised into three parts, each one dedicated to an appearance made by our Heaven-Mom at the three different corners of Spain and Portugal where we went to. Each part has its own share of short and sweet stories which do not necessarily weave into a huge overarching narrative, and I keep them as such.

I. Garabandal
Madrid, Santander, Zurita, Las Presillas, and San Sebastián de Garabandal

The Adventures of Mom at Garabandal: It is said that Our Lady of Carmen appeared to four young girls at Garabandal several times from 1961 to 1965. The girls were so excited to see her that they spent their time with their necks constantly craned to the heavens, even while walking around, running up and down the hill behind the village, etc. The villagers passed to them things which needed Mom's blessing, and were happy. A certain Father Luis Marie Andreu also had a glimpse of Our Lady of Carmen, then died of happiness during the night. Today, the story has been kept alive by her devotees, especially the media-savvy religious siblings of Hogar de la Madre who made us go to Garabandal after we visited them.

San Sebastian de Garabandal from the hilltop

The story of Michael the Brazilian: Michael the Brazilian took a lift in our car to reach Garabandal. He had been walking uphill from Cosío, roughly 3 kilometers away. He came to the village once upon a time and then decided to stay there for 5 years. He could not understand my Portuguese.

The story of Zurita: Hogar de la Madre, or Home of the Mother, was started by a mystic they call Mamie and a priest called Fr. Felix, if my memory serves me well. Publishing and painting became the forte of these people. A cluster of printing presses were donated to them, and they have used it to print magazines for subscribers everywhere, as far as I can tell.

Mass happened here
We learned that an icon is not so much painted out by the artist, but prayed out.

The sisters keep two dogs as rat predators. The sprightly one they call Andalo, in honour of Andalusia a.k.a. the Real Spain. The name of the lazy one I could not remember, but the name meant "Rug". The brothers kept a cat.

How to reach Garabandal by car: The best way to reach Garabandal by car from Santander is to turn into the Río Nansa valley road from A-8 at Pesués. This was the route pointed out to us by the sisters at Hogar de la Madre. The route suggested by the navigation system, on the other hand, took us through a very annoying journey with mountain roads. 

How the landscape in Spain changes during long drives, Part 1: Cantabria, also known as Green Spain, is very green and very picturesquely slopey. A tunnel or viaduct is encountered here every few minutes or so. As you go south, the mountains taper off gradually and then one is confronted with a vast arid plain in the provinces of Palencia and Valladolid which stretches all the way up to Salamanca. After Salamanca, as one approaches the Portuguese border at the town of Fuentes de Oñoro, it becomes (if I remember correctly) a rolling terrain where trees (cork? holm oak?) are planted in neat ranks and files. By the time one has driven into Portugal, behold: There comes again a pleasant green rolling itself across the land again, like a milder, less menacing Cantabria.

Water prices: were higher in Madrid and Toledo than they were in the wetter parts of the country, as is expected. Wine is often cheaper. Food is expensive but is usually worth it. Usually.

II. Fátima
Salamanca, Fátima, Aljustrel, and Lisboa

The Adventures of Mom at Fátima: The story of Mom at Fátima is long and illustrious and readily available at more reputable sources than this one. Tom Hoopes of Aleteia wraps it up succintly, saying that 13 July 1917, the day of her apparitions, "was the day Our Lady scared the daylights out of three shepherd children by showing them hell and sternly warning them about a second global war and a new age of martyrdom." As it happened, WWII came and passed, the Soviet Union came and passed, and St. Pope John Paul II was shot at and almost killed (by a hairsbreadth) by a Turanist lunatic in 1981, all in fulfillment of her prophecies. The fanfare surrounding the town of Fátima this year is due to it being 2017, a neat hundred years after the first apparitions. Posters welcoming the Pope during his previous visit are still plastered around town, but the lull of pilgrims in late June is something to be appreciated.

The scaffold put up at Cova de Iria, with the Basilica belltower
The Rosary: I was used to a simple night rosary session with around 7 friends in a Google Hangouts chat. I mistakenly assumed that the same would happen at Fátima, a place which receives around 5 million pilgrims every day and is also responsible for a permanent new addition to the Rosary itself. It turned out to be a huge fanfare, five decades led in two languages each, followed by a procession where a statue was dragged out to circle the sanctuary complex with four bajillion people with crowd control, then concluded by the Salve Regina (I wasn't sure when it was going to end).

I usually didn't think it decorous to take pictures of Rosary sessions, but here you go. I took a picture. Here be candles galore.

The Knee Walk: Esther from the summer school had heard of Fátima. "They are crazy," she said. "They do that thing where they walk on their knees down a path." The knee walk here is something pilgrims do out of sorrow and penance for sin. I can now verify that it is very crazy indeed. The abrasions that I earned from the walk took days to heal. However, at least one very resourceful pilgrim has been spotted doing the walk with kneepads. This is something that potential pilgrims should take note.

A Day Mass Where We Spotted A Priest Who Resembled Fr. Ben Holdren of Nebraska So Much That I Just Can't believe how we keep on winding up in the same country. As I had mentioned in this blog here and here, Fr. Ben Holdren gave me doughnuts and heard my confessions during a very low point of my life. I still have not gotten over it. I must testify also to the healing power of doughnuts.

The girl got some candles after mass. They smell very nice. She lit them, placed them very carefully into the candle holders where they offer the candles, and offered a prayer for each one. At that time the fires were licking at the stands and melting the candles so that they bent over and rested on the next tier of candle holders, as if taking a seat. They burned so fiercely that I wondered if one should just throw the candles into there and run away as fast as they could.

I prayed also for the Sisters and Brothers of Hogar de la Madre, as promised.

The Adventures of Cow In The Oven: Clara and Sérgio Patrício run a good restaurant near the place we stayed. The name of the restaurant is Santa Rita, and they serve Portuguese food from the Azores. The food, especially the one named Vitela (or Cow In The Oven in the English menu), brings a tear to me eye.

I wrote a review on Google for them, as promised. This is how it goes:

The Adventures of the Lu (路) Family in Fátima: The Lus run the Restaurante Si Hai next to the Patrícios' restaurant, and keep it open way into the night. Mr and Mrs Lu had decided to travel to Fátima from Shandong to open a Chinese restaurant out of a acute sensitivity to business opportunities. They receive the many hungry pilgrims who come to Fátima from Malaysia and Indonesia on huge tour buses every day. A lady from Singapore arrives regularly to help with the cleaning-up, and other regular visitors come to lodge with them during high seasons. The couple are not believers, but a small icon of Mary watches the place day and night.

Their two children attend school in the town and are taught things in Portuguese. English language schools, much preferred by Chinese expats, are available in the capital, but it was not thought worth it to send them there.

The Adventure of the Tart Run: Tart run happened one day after the girl heard of the famous Pastéis de Belém and wanted to try their tarts. So off we went to Lisbon. Lisbon drivers were the worst. We walked to the famous Pastéis de Belém past the statue of a pompous dude stuck on a tall column surrounded by four marble wenches bathing in public view. A huge clamouring queue of people from all over the world can be seen at the entrance of the bakery (custard tartery?), but the purchase was over in 10 minutes or so. The custard tarts were nice and it was a happy day.

Gas prices: are much higher in Portugal than in Spain. I never figured out why this is the case.

III. Chilla
Candeleda, Mombeltrán, Navalsauz, Ávila, Oropesa, and Toledo

The Adventures of Mom at Chilla: It is said that the Virgin of Chilla appeared to a certain goatherd Finardo, who lived at Candeleda during the seventh century, and revived his dead goat. In gratitude, the Candeledans built a chapel where she appeared, and made her their patron ever since. Her icon can be seen plastered in every shop in Candeleda. The Candeledanos used to remember more about the Virgin of Chilla, but the written records had been thrown in a well during the war with France and were gone for good. Despite this setback, the devotion has continued unabated.

Why we ended up in Candeleda, and an explanation for the title of this entry: We had intended to lodge at the Sierra in the village of San Martín del Pimpollar before our stay, but I changed the booking because the villagers wanted to have some fun playing music to the wee hours in the morning for the two straight nights we were due to be staying there. The manager of the guesthouse of San Martín del Pimpollar, Juan Francisco Redondo Sánchez, was a good person and had tipped us off about it in advance.

The name Pimpollar translates literally to a place of pimpollos -- "pine-chickens", or saplings of pine. During one of our day trips, we managed to descend upon the hapless Pimpollarese (who were expecting anything but tourists on that quiet day) by visiting their parish church at Navalsauz, a sweet old edifice with a bell.

Ricardo and Toñi's Fabulous Guesthouse: Having been scared off the north slope of the Gredos, we took refuge on the south, at a place I chose because the website said it had air-conditioning. This is Casa Rural la Josa, a guesthouse of 6-ish rooms outside Candeleda along a one-lane dirt path up the mountain which is really fun to drive up in.

Ricardo de la Vega, a spunky septuagenarian, and Antonia "Toñi" Velasco Serrano, his wife, live here together and run the guesthouse and spoil their guests rotten with food and company. They share their space also with a family of five cats (3 of which are smol kittenz), and their children and grandchildren came to visit them on Saturday afternoon.

Smol kittenz were too smol to be seen
Dinners happened on a terrace where one could see the plains to the south, as far away as the Montes de Toledo. There was one evening when a column of smoke in the plains, and Ricardo called the fire department; he just so happens to be so uniquely situated that he could regularly spot and report fires raging in the neighbouring province. Toñi emerged from the house twice, once to say hi and once to say bye. She introduced herself in German for some reason.

One sees right into the Castilla-La Mancha bit of Spain, up to the Montes de Toledo
Afterwards, while driving along the Río Tiétar, I noticed scorched earth on the side of the road. Random fires seemed common in Castilla-La Mancha in the summer. We were lucky not to have run directly into one.

How the landscape in Spain changes during long drives, Part 2: Sierra de Gredos is a tolerable alpine climate this summer, meaning that it does not reach the temperatures of a blast furnace, as what has happened in lower-altitude cities in New Castille such as Madrid and Toledo. By driving down to Toledo one approaches the region of La Mancha, which is a strange and unforgiving habitat where green things have all but given up being alive. Not having ventured very far into that area, we failed to spot any windmills or Don Quixote, but nothing has indicated to us that such things might not be lurking somewhere just out of sight. Gas stations are harder to find here.

Cities and Towns around Candeleda: We drove up the mountain pass to Ávila. Along the way there were Mombeltrán and Puerto del Pico, at 1300 m. Mombeltrán had a castle which we could not go into, and Puerto del Pico had cowpats scattered across the cool alpine field. A memorial to the Fallen of Spain have been set up here. This spot seems to be a start point of a route that hikers take to Pico Almanzor, the highest point of the Sierra.

The Fallen of Spain (some letters missing)
The (same?) cows were spotted crossing the street in the afternoon as we approached Arenas de San Pedro, but we were not sure why they did so. They were escorted by some fine cowboys.

Ávila has a neat old wall. This is the first thing one learns of Ávila. The second thing that one learns of Ávila is that St. Theresa of Ávila came from Ávila. Her headquarters here has been very blinged-up, and it even came with a souvenir store managed by grumpy storekeepers.

Lunch was at a very well-reviewed Portuguese restaurant. They had cod also, but it wasn't Spiritual.

Walls are an ever-looming presence in this town, and so we pay a visit.

The first thing one learns of Toledo is that the ground here is paved with murder weapons.

The second thing one learns about Toledo is that the old Mozarabic rite masses are still performed here, a relic reminding us of how Christians here used to do things when the Umayyad Caliphs were in charge of the Iberian peninsula. Masses in Mozarabic rite happens only on Sunday mornings at the Cathedral.

The third thing that one learns about Toledo is that it is epic. It came with its own soundtrack which is played in a loop at Plaza del Salvador, and people who lived there had to listen to it all day. Cloth draped over the pedestrian streets kept it cool, and flashmob dancing happened left and right made sure that we were reminded and thoroughly convinced of the city's epicness.

Oropesa lies along the way to Toledo. They have there a nice view of the Sierra. The walls here are painted with intricate storylines by the local schoolchildren. The locals liked to visit the castle.

Candeleda is a place populated by the elderly, one of which told us that we were a cute couple. A river flows through the town. It is presently dried up in the absence of meltwater, but a trickle still passes by the round polished boulders. When one bends over one of the lagoons, they would be able to see fish lurking in them. What carefree creatures these must be! And at that moment the sun shone on us and kept us just the right degree of warm.

And my story ends here
this is as much as I am able to put to keyboard now
There is much more to say, if I recall them, but you might have to find me in person
for me to get started on the yarn. It's just in the nature of stories.
I'm tired. I have to go now.

Appendix I. Events
17-18 June: One extremely hot and stressful day in Madrid
18-24 June: IEEE Summer School 2017, Santander
25 June: Visit to the Sisters/Brothers of Hogar de la Madre at Zurita and Las Presillas, impromptu trip to San Sebastián de Garabandal for a rosary
26 June: Long car trip to Fátima via Salamanca
27 June: Epic Night Rosary at the Sanctuary complex
28 June: Tart Run (short crazy car ride into the capital)
29 June: Medium-length car trip to Casa Rural La Josa, a guesthouse outside of city boundaries of Candeleda, at the south slope of the Sierra below Pico Almanzor
30 June: Day trip to Ávila, passing by Mombeltrán, Puerto del Pico, and Navalsauz
1 July: Walking trip to Candeleda
2 July: Day trip to Oropesa and Toledo
3 July: Departure from Spain

Appendix II. Mass locations
Sunday 18 June: Almudena Cathedral
Sunday 25 June: Hogar de la Madre, Zurita
Wednesday 28 June: Sanctuary of Fátima
Sunday 2 July: Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo