The Rock Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia


የኢትዮጵያ ታሪክ፥ ላሊበላ

The above phrase is written in Amharic, and says “Ethiopian history: Lalibela.”

Christianity was established as the state religion in Ethiopia in 330 AD. However, it is highly likely that it arrived in Ethiopia before that.  Lalibela is often referred to as the “New Jerusalem” of Africa. Legend says that an angel took the Emperor of Lalibela to Jerusalem to see the churches there. Struck with wonder, upon returning to Lalibela, the Emperor built his own New Jerusalem so that pilgrims wouldn’t have to make the dangerous and long journey to the true Jerusalem. A pious man and lifelong devotee of the church, he was made a saint by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church after his death.

In 1978, the churches of Lalibela were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The churches in the town are still an active place of pilgrimage and worship for the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox faith. To preserve these historic Lalibela churches, UNESCO has built protective covering for four of the churches so that they can be sheltered from the weather. If you’d like to see a brief video of Lalibela made by UNESCO, click here.

We were lucky enough to have Girma Derbie as our guide in Lalibela. Not only is Girma a very experienced guide and an amazing scholar of Lalibela, he is also a devout member of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and a gentle soul. Girma’s narrative was fascinating, and his encouraging manner and helping hand literally boosted me up the difficult paths. You would be wise indeed to contact him for your tour of Lalibela. Although his website is under construction, he can be easily reached via email at or by phone at +251 91351 3763.
On our first day, Girma recommended that we hire the services of one of the local women, whom we came to refer to as our shoe lady. We didn’t at first understand her role, but soon came to be very grateful to Fatima for her assistance. Before entering any of the churches, visitors must remove their shoes. Fatima would keep tabs on ours, as well as offer assistance with tricky footing on the paths. She spent two entire days traveling the sites with us, and she was most gracious and pleasant. If you go, be sure to take advantage of this service. We saw the results of one tourist’s failure to do so: his shoes were stolen!
Th map below shows the placement of the different churches, which are usually visited in two different groups. You’ll notice that there are variations on the spellings, due to linguistic differences.

First Group: Northern Churches

1. Bete Medhane Alem – Savior/Redeemer of the World

This church is home to the Cross of Lalibela and stands 11 meters high. Biete Medhanie is the largest of the Lalibela churches and is considered to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world. It is a monolith – carved from one large block of stone. The walls are a deep pink in color, which make the church stand out from the rugged landscape. Within the church are 72 columns, symbolizing the 72 disciples. It’s said that Christ touched one of the pillars of the church when he appeared to King Lalibela in one of his dreams.

A view from ground level.
Looking up at the church walls from the path to the entrance, below ground.
A nun, in yellow, and other worshipers. People traditionally wear white when they attend services.
Visitors can see caves in the sides of the excavation, where pilgrims stayed.
Beautiful lighting enhances the interior.
The drum is symbolic of the Bible: the smaller end represents the 27 books of the New Testament, the larger end, the 39 books of the Old Testament. The webbing represents Jesus, who bridges the two.
The columns of Bet Mehdan are colossal.
The interior of the church combines ancient and modern artwork.

2. Bete Maryam (Church of Mary)

There are stunning frescoes and paintings inside this church, which pays tribute to the Virgin Mary.




Spectacular frescoes are displayed on the ceiling.



The curtain separates the holiest part of the church, accessible only to priests, from the public area.


3. Bete Meskel (House of the Cross)

Worshipers viewing some of the ancient treasures.
The swastika did not take on its current negative meaning until the 20th century. In other cultures, it was a symbol of life and eternity.
Additional window shapes.
Candles and frankincense for use in worship.
All the churches have mats and rugs on the rock floors.

4. Bete Denagel – House of Virgins

Another small chapel found in Bet Maryam’s courtyard (carved into the southern wall), this small church was constructed in memory of the maiden nuns martyred upon the order of 4th century Roman emperor Julian.


5. Golgotha (King Lalibela’s Tomb)/Debre Sinay/St. Michael’s

These three churches are in close proximity to one another, connected by narrow paths and tricky-to-navigate entrances.

Although I could access the anteroom of the church of Golgotha, only men were allowed into the church itself. Don’t even get me started. King Lalibela’s tomb is also not available to the public. He is regarded as a saint as well as a monarch.

Interior of Golgotha. There are statues of all the apostles, in the above style, but only a few are outside the men-only zone.
This is the bench where we females waited while the males were inside. If you want to see photos, you’ll have to wait until my husband,, publishes his Ethiopia blog.

6. Tomb of Adam and Eve

Here is a snap of my husband Craig as well as Fatima, our helper. You’ll notice that she is officially licensed to be at the site, and was kind enough to carry Craig’s jacket for him as the day warmed up.


Bee Huts

In between the northern and southern groups of churches, one finds a village of bee huts. When King Lalibela was a boy, it is believed that he was chosen as king by this heavenly sign: a swarm of bees surrounded him. Traditional bee huts were built in memory of this, but many are no longer occupied.


Just outside the frame of this photo, a young man sat at a desk and decorated these scrolls by hand. I wish we had purchased one! The reason we didn’t was the incredible aggression of the vendors – any time we showed the slightest interest in purchasing something, we were surrounded by people trying to outdo one another for our attention and money. I found it overwhelming, and avoided the chaos when possible.

Second Group: Southern Churches

1. Bete Gebrel and Rufael (Church of Gabriel and Raphael)

Ethiopian Orthodox nuns wear bright yellow robes, and frequently walk the paths between the churches.
The paths to the churches seem like they’re always uphill!


Below is a fascinating video of worshipers chanting during a prayer service.

Although this was a men only service, the gentlemen were very welcoming to me.
The sticks are used as supports to lean on, since the services can be hours long and chairs aren’t usually available during them.
When they noticed I was having trouble seeing, they invited me to thread my way through to a higher vantage point. Notice the small rhythm instruments that the men are holding.
An older man beckoned the youngster in red to take his place at the drum, so that he could practice being part of the worship.
A much better view for 5’1″ me!
The exterior of Gebrel & Rufael Church

2. Bete Merkoryos

This church is reached by a series of paths and tunnels from Bete Gebrel and Rufael. It is very small and it is theorized that it may have originally had a different purpose other than worship. The discovery of ankle shackles have caused speculation that it may have been used as a prison at some point.


3. Bete Amanuel

Copy of a 17th century painted canvas depicting St Gabra Manfas Qeddus known as Abo. He was founder of the monastery of Zuqualla and reputedly lived for 362 years.
saint horse1
Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki

4. Bete Abba Libanos

Bete Abba Libanos

Bete Giyorgis (St. George Church)

This spectacular church is located between the two groups. It boggles the mind to consider how this structure was created without machinery of any kind, in the late 12th or early 13th century AD. It was carved from the top down, and is made of volcanic tuff.

At first glance, it seems impossible to find the entrance to the church due to the sheer walls all around it. However, one can enter via a narrow man-made canyon/tunnel, which spirals downward and conceals the entrance in order to protect the church.


Pilgrims would travel to the site and simply stay until they died. Their bodies were allowed to remain in the niches in the church wall, mummifying in the process.
George dragon
St. George the dragon slayer.

Third Group: Outside Town

St. Yemrehana Krestos Church

This church, 42 km away from Lalibela, was built inside a large cave. It is about 1,000 years old, and constructed in the Axumite style.  Until the construction of a road in 2000, It was reachable only on mule or by foot. The church is still in active service to this day, and a security wall has been erected over the cave mouth to keep the site safe.

St. Na’akueto La’ab Cave Church

This church is believed to have been built by the king called Na’akueto La’ab, the successor to King Lalibela, in the 13th century. It is about 7km from Lalibela. Inside the church, water from natural springs is caught in various containers and used as holy water. Inside the church are stored many treasures like crosses, parchment, books, etc.


These rocks ring when tapped.



vessels of holy water.



Asheten Mariam Monastery

We traveled 8km by car to reach this spectacular site, and then climbed to an elevation of 3150m (10,334 feet) above sea level to enter. The scenery was green and lush – not what we expected from Ethiopia!


Keep climbing!


Mariam 16
A spring


We were winded but triumphant when we reached the top!

I was glad my boots had zippers – easy on and off.
The church interior was very dim, so I didn’t take many photos. Here are a couple to give you an idea of the inside.
Behind the red curtain is the Holy of Holies, accessible only to the priests.
This young man made sure we were able to take good photos of the religious artifacts. Because the interior was very dimly lit, he walked to the door with each piece and waited patiently for us to take our pictures.


These are the thumbprints of those who worked on this book.

Bilba Kirkos Church

Although we drove 35 km to reach this church, when we finally completed the trek to the site, we couldn’t enter since the priest was away attending a funeral. We were able to wander around the yard and chat with the neighbors a bit. And yes, our guide said to take our shoes off, so…
Entryway to the compound
It’s a low threshold!
The church entrance, locked up tight
Neighbors who keep an eye on things. The man is holding a fly whisk  made of the tail of an animal.
Grafitti of the Lion of Judah.
I wanted to buy this child a new dress.
These little girls accompanied us the entire way, taking shortcuts through the woods and popping up here and there between the trees.
The photos you’re seeing here were taken over the course of our four day visit. We took our time, but could have squeezed the trip down to three days if we had been in a hurry.
Ethiopia is a phenomenal country, filled with kind people and historic sites unequaled anywhere else in the world. If a visit is at all within the realm of possibility for you, don’t even hesitate – just go.
I’m going to end with a few more assorted photos. Most of these are “drive by” snapshots, which explains why the subjects sometimes look surprised. If you’d like to see them in a larger version, just click on the picture.
Thanks for reading – I appreciate your time! I’d love it if you would follow me, and please leave a comment. Ciao!

The Mursi – a Southern Omo Valley Tribe

We left our hotel and headed south in order to visit the Mursi tribe in their remote village. We ended up sitting in a line of cars for about an hour, as our guide tried to find out what the delay was. It seems there was a bit of trouble ahead – there was no love lost between the local townspeople from Jinka and the nearest tribe, the Ari. There had been some kind of conflict, and the local authorities were sorting it out. Meanwhile, 4 or 5 vehicles carrying tourists had to wait it out.

After a bit we were given the go-ahead, and we all followed a police vehicle through the Ari territory.


As the police escort left us, we pulled to the side of the road to pick up our “scout.” Our scout was a very large man in a military uniform, and he carried an AK-47. Okay, so not exactly a Boy Scout.


He squished himself into the rear of our Toyota, and off we went. Every other tourist vehicle had a scout as well. Better safe than sorry, right? We later learned that the heavy trucks coming through the area often run down livestock, which has a serious impact upon the finances of the tribes. Therefore, any vehicles that travel that portion of the road are looked upon as potential threats and/or victims; hence, the increased security measures.

This woman is the first person we saw as we entered the village. Had it not been for the setting, I would have thought she was a fashion model!


She exemplifies the traditional Mursi body decorations: the stretched earlobes or bottom lip to accommodate a clay plate, and bodily scarring. Our guide told us the scarring was done with thorns from the acacia tree in order to decorate and beautify the body. We saw some men with scarring, but it was much more prevalent on the women.


The Mursi people are very accustomed to visitors, and have developed a system for dealing with tourists. Photographers are welcome to pay for the privilege of taking photos. Each villager, children included, charges a fee to pose. The fee is nominal, but when you take as many pictures as Craig and I do, it made our tour guide Ephrem feel like an ATM, doling out small denomination bills constantly.

We had to laugh when we realized that some of the villagers were popping into their huts, changing headgear, and coming back out for another photo op and tip. The Ethiopian monetary unit is the birr, and there are 30 birr to one US dollar. Ten birr was a pretty typical fee for a photo. Some of the folks decided that it should be 10 birr per photographer, so after a while I backed off to keep Ephrem from running out of money.

Ethiopian bills are kept in circulation until they fall apart!


Here is a collection of photos of the Mursi people.




It disturbed me to see the condition of the children. Many of them looked undernourished to me, and had coughs, runny noses, or eye infections. As I said in my earlier post, these folks live a very hard life. Water must be carried. In order to cook something, they must first grow it or catch it. If they want bread, they must first grown the grain,  then grind it and cook it. There are no convenience stores. The local open-air markets offer produce, charcoal, and Chinese plastic goods. Cattle are plentiful but don’t give much milk, and aren’t often slaughtered for food.  The earth is dry and dusty and there simply isn’t enough water for the luxury of cleanliness.

More tribes in my next post. Come back soon!



Return from An Alternate Universe

Craig and I just spent three weeks in Ethiopia. Let me see if I can put this experience into words and pictures for you.

Ethiopia is unlike anywhere I have ever been. It is a tough place to visit, for a number of reasons, but should you consider going, here are a few words of advice. If you are feeling anything less that bulletproof, don’t go. Every aspect of life in Ethiopia will test you, and you want your force fields to be full strength for the challenge. If you are squeamish about your toilet facilities, let me give you two words to consider: pit toilets. If that doesn’t put you off, keep reading.

How do you feel about malaria? Sleeping in dusty mosquito netting? Getting every square inch of you covered in red dust? (And this wasn’t even dry season.) Taking cold showers? Seeing children dressed in rags, or not dressed at all?

For the first part of the trip, we traveled to the southern Omo Valley to see the most remote tribes in their traditional villages, living as they have for thousands of years. Merely getting there proved challenging, since the infrastructure in a large part of Ethiopia is virtually non-existent. This little video will give you an idea of what some of the drive felt like.

Simply sitting in the back seat and riding for a few hours was exhausting. Craig coined the term “rattled tourist syndrome” for the after effects of the experience.

People work hard here, so hard, for the basic necessities of life. Water is never taken for granted, and getting an adequate supply of water takes up a huge portion of every day. Jerry cans and plastic water bottles are everywhere.

These folks are looking for water in a dry riverbed. At certain times of the year, they have to dig down a few feet to find it.

Once they find water, they have to get it into containers and carry it home. Children would ask us for our empty water bottles, to replace the old ones they use to carry their personal water supply.

The following are photos of The Singing Well.  The Borena tribe uses this method to supply adequate water for their cattle and goats.


What you can’t see from my vantage point is the deeper part of the well – at the rear, there are men about 30 feet down handing up buckets of water to the men on the top level.

Turn on your volume so you can hear the chanting.


Everyone works to contribute to the family’s well-being. Boys as young as 5 or 6 herd camels, cows or goats, and young girls tend the babies, wash clothes, or make bread. I cringed at the sight of girls carrying such heavy loads, or older women burdened with huge piles of firewood. I’ve seen pictures of my grandmother carrying similar bundles, but that was 150 years ago.

When our guide offered her 10 birr, this girl obligingly paused in her work to pose for us. Ten birr equals about 35 cents.
A young camel herder asking for our water bottles. The boys carry a 2L container of sugar water with them; that is their only sustenance for the day.


The young chef is making a pancake from a plant known as false banana. Its leaves look the same as the fruit tree, but it doesn’t produce any kind of fruit. However, all parts of the plant are used in various ways, and it is a staple of the local diet.


The first tribe we visited was the Gamo tribe in the Dorze village. It was market day, so our local guide took us for a stroll through the vendors. Needless to say, we stood out in the crowd, and were received with varying degrees of curiosity, friendliness, and impatience. I was petted, grabbed, swatted, and mostly greeted in a cordial way, especially by the children, who found me very amusing and approachable.

This little charmer really wanted his picture taken; the guy behind him, not so much.
The  market vendors sold every kind of produce imaginable, including herbs like these.
Our guide, right front, explained to us that these women are enjoying a ritual smoke.
This woman is 77 years old, and we had a lively conversation through an interpreter.
Foosball is wildly popular in Ethiopia.

The Dorze live in structures called elephant huts, inspired by the animals that lived in the area hundreds of years ago. Inside we saw guest sleeping quarters, the cooking area with open fire, and the cattle chute, which led from the kitchen to a back section. The livestock sleeps inside with the family, to combat the cold night temperatures.



The following day we visited the Konso tribe. Their village has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site, because of the three circles of ancient rock walls surrounding it. As the village grew, additional circles were added to keep out intruders.

The Konso people are animists, and these are some of the family idols. Originally, the statues had been placed at the family’s graves, but because of theft, they were now kept within the family compound.
Calabash gourds are used for everything from drinking vessels to headgear. Those are porcupine quills on the right.
This little doll followed us around the entire village, somehow always managing to be ahead of us on the rocky trails.

The Konso people mark the years by erecting generation poles. Each pole represents 18 years, and they stand in the village gathering spot. Unfortunately, time and termites have rotted the poles, so they are no longer an accurate representation of the age of the village.

I’ll end this segment with another market visit. People walked for many miles to bring their goods to the market, and had to carry it all back home if it didn’t sell. And even here in remote areas, we saw Chinese goods.


One barefooted little boy asked me to buy him a pair of shoes. The local guide said they sell for about 50 cents, and then cautioned me: if I bought a pair for this fellow, I would be inundated by other children wanting shoes also. I regretfully told him no.



Our most outrageous and wonderful dining experience in Cape Town: SŸN at 47 on Bree St.

This is not our typical blog post. Sorry, there are no safari animal photos today. But we had the most fantastic dinner last night, and wanted to write about it before your chance to eat there too is gone!

SŸN at 47 is a pop-up restaurant less than a month old, and in about another month it’s shutting down for a bit in order to establish itself permanently in a new location. But trust me, you don’t want to wait for the new spot. Finish reading this review, and then click the link to make your reservation. It’s a completely unique and engaging experience in molecular gastronomy!

The climb up to the third floor only wakes up your appetite for the evening ahead. One of the many things we loved about this dinner was the leisurely aspect of it: we were there for the evening, and were able to slowly enjoy every bite and sip.

Chefs Warwick King and Rikku Ó’Donnchü work on either side of the counter in a semi-open kitchen, and it’s great fun to watch them as they put the finishing touches on each plate. At some point in the evening even a helium tank appeared, but I’ll say no more about that. Some things are better encountered first-hand!

We opted for the dinner of 11 tastings plus wine pairings. As each course was presented, our very personable and knowledgeable waiter Rufus explained the inspiration behind the dish, and the characteristics of the accompanying wine.

No detail was ignored during our three-hour dinner. To begin, the menu items were printed on an edible sheet, which became a taco shell of sorts for part of the dessert. The good quality napkins were rolled into short stout cylinders for an unusual look to the table setting, and the appropriate silverware was brought out for each dish – small spoons, knife and fork, even a tweezer-like device for the seafood. The different tastes were served in a variety of vessels: eucalyptus wood platters, custom-designed ceramic cylinders that mimic ashtrays, tiny clay flowerpots. All of it charming and playful, all of it brilliant.

At first appearance, each serving seemed but a morsel of food. By the end of the experience, though, we realized that the amounts were just right. Anything more and we would have been over-satiated and uncomfortable.

I’m not even going to explain each of the plates. Just look at the photos of this gorgeous food, and make your reservations.





Adventures with the Animals: Part Three

More beautiful animals from Schotia Safaris Private Game Reserve. If you are ever in South Africa, you must visit!


The crocodiles share a pond with the hippos, and neither seems particularly bothered by the other. In the first photos below, the croc in the rear is the female, and she prefers to spend her day with a pile of mud on her back.

Personally, I find the crocs quite sinister looking.

cropped-crocs.jpgcroc eyescroc facecroc face2



As reported in My Port Elizabeth newspaper on May 31, 2013:

The Schotia Game Reserve – approximately 50 kilometres outside Port Elizabeth – reported today on the poaching of two rhino on the reserve.  It is not clear when the poaching occurred as both animals could not be located for more than a day leading up to their being located, late yesterday afternoon of the 30 May.

The bull, known as Clyde, was discovered first, heavily drugged and in a state of shock. An initial search for Bonnie, the female, proved fruitless and it was feared that she would be found dead.

Schotia immediately called for the veterinary assistance of Dr William Fowlds, of Investec Rhino Lifeline, who arrived supported by the helicopter services of Grant Soule of Aptrac. A short while later Bonnie, was found, very dazed in thick bush.

Both rhino were treated by Dr Fowlds and we can report that they have survived the night and have been located alive this morning.

Dr Fowlds said, “Both these rhino are extremely fortunate to be alive. It is suspected that they were darted by the poachers. Treatment of their damaged horn bases is expected to be successful but what is uncertain at this stage is how much internal trauma they have sustained due to the extended period they would have lain under potent anesthetic drugs. In previous cases this has led to death weeks and sometimes months later.  Both rhino have some trauma to their eyes which is being monitored. Blood samples have been sent to Cape Town in an effort to assess the degree of internal complications.”

The aftermath of this poaching event was that both rhinos are now sterile due to internal bleeding. Furthermore, Bonnie was pregnant at the time, but lost her baby. Thus, poaching has eliminated the possibility of an increase in the rhino population at Schotia Reserve.

Poaching has embraced technology, and the thieves now use GPS tracking and helicopters. They have also been known to pose as guests on safari drives, to scope out the possibilities at any given location.

Due to the prevalence of poaching, and the sophisticated methods used by the poachers, the owners of the reserve have asked that I not publish any photos of the rhinos to social media. Although I am disappointed to be unable to share the photos with you, I am of course honoring their request. I wish I could do more to help prevent this horrific criminal activity, which is unfortunately so lucrative and widespread.

And yes, here in Cape Town you can get pasta shaped like safari animals. And yes, I do have a package in my suitcase to take home for my grandson.


Yes, that is the plural form in English. You Latin-speaking purists may go with hippopotami. Either way, I find these fellows bizarre and amusing. I would even go so far as to say they have a malevolent look in their eye, and I certainly did not get anywhere close to them (thank you, Canon telephoto lens.)

Hippos spend most of their line hanging out in the water, immersed up to their eyeballs. They can hold their breath for five minutes or longer when they choose to dunk under. And they are not the least bit threatened by the crocodiles sharing their pool, nor the reverse. Strange bedfellows indeed.

For as slow and lumbering as they appear on land, the hippos are right quick in the water. I completely missed the shot of one rolling over – my pics show nothing but foamy water. The blurry pic below is the best of the lot of a gigantic hippo yawn, and I included it because, well, take a look!

hipposhippo eyeshippo splashhippo facehippo closehippo yawn

I hope you’re not getting bored with my animal blog posts, because I’ve got two more. So keep an eye peeled to my Facebook page, or better yet, sign up on this site to follow me.  You’ll  make my day!

Adventures with the Animals: Part Two

More from Schotia Safari Reserve.

Wart Hogs

Maybe not quite as cute as Pumbaa in the Lion King…

warthog fam


warthog2warthog water


This term refers to a number of deer-like animals that we saw on the game drives. Their characteristics are smooth hair, and upward-pointing horns. We learned that the horns that these animals bear are not antlers; antlers are shed and regrown seasonally, whereas horns are permanent and have blood vessels, which means they bleed when they break.

red hartebeest
Red Hartebeest
nyala baby
Young nyala
female kudu
Female kudu
female impala



Tracking the giraffes is fun and really easy, for obvious reasons. Our guide told us that the pattern on their hides is as individual as our fiingerprints. I love the way their fur looks reddish in the sunlight.


giraffe tongue
Notice the tongue?  It’s hard to believe that they can eat the acacia trees without doing themselves harm.

giraffe profile

girraffe chew
Every photographer knows that chewing shots are not flattering to the subject!
giraffe face
Those eyelashes!

giraffe eyelashes

giraffe texture

Thanks for reading! I’ve got so many animal photos that there will be two more parts to this blog entry. Please sign up to follow me, and you’ll get notified when they launch. I appreciate your time!


Adventures with the Animals: Part One

A highlight of our time in South Africa was our road trip east, along the Garden Route, capped off by 3 days at a game reserve. We decided on Schotia Safaris Private Game Reserve, a beautiful family-owned expanse of wild land and the animals who live there.

We stayed in a lovely thatched roof lodge, very spacious and comfortable, which was luxurious and  rustic at the same time. Although there was electricity, there was exactly one light fixture; the rest of the light was provided by oil lamps and candles, which made for a wonderful evening. On the other end of the spectrum, the bathroom was one of the most elegant we have seen in our travels, with a walk-in shower as well as a large tub. (Ironically, South Africa is in the midst of a drought, and guilt prevented us from taking advantage of the many deep soaking tubs in our hotels.) We hadn’t realized that we would be the only overnight guests at the nearly 4,000 acre property on our last night – we felt like the kings of the castle!


I could try to describe the beauty of the place, and the stunning wildlife, but it’s much better to simply get to the pictures, isn’t it? Here they are.

The Elephants

The elephants at Schotia are stunningly beautiful and healthy. Here is the first one we met, ambling down the road to take a look at the visitors.


Our guide Edward referred to this fellow as the Boss, for obvious reasons.  Edward reassured us that he was a very calm elephant and there was nothing to fear, but as he came within a few feet of us sitting in our open truck, I had a sense of his enormity and power, and sincerely hoped Edward was correct in his assessment of the fellow’s peaceful nature.


He hung out with us for a bit, munching grass. He would scrape at the grass with his front foot, pull some out with his trunk, and then tap it against himself to knock off the dirt before popping it into his mouth.


After a bit, he circled around the truck and ambled off. It took a while before my blood pressure returned to normal.

ele eats

We also visited the nearby Addo Elephant Park, which is part of South Africa’s impressive system of national parks.  Although there is a larger herd (currently 750 elephants, which originated from a herd of 18) at Addo, many of the elephants have undersized or no tusks at all, due to the relatively small gene pool in this isolated community. It was enthralling to watch the herd gather at the watering hole for a drink.




The babies! Just so adorable!

As I mentioned, in Schotia we were not constantly bumping into other groups; not so in Addo.  As we watched the elephants drink, we had to jockey for position with at least a dozen other vehicles. An animal sighting would cause a traffic jam as everyone tried to get a good view from their cars.  (Under no circumstances are visitors allowed out of their cars at either reserve. They’re cute, but they’re wild animals!)

Back at Schotia, one morning we discovered a large branch of an acacia tree blocking the road. Edward told us this was the work of the elephants, who regularly knock over trees for a variety of reasons. As a brilliant means of natural elephant repellent, the Schotia folks placed bee hives around the trees, because elephants are afraid of them. Ridiculous, right? But apparently effective.


e;e wrest;e

On one of our game drives, we passed the carcass of an elephant.  A couple of years ago, this elephant was constantly breaking out of the reserve, and was teaching the other elephants these bad habits as well.  This is dangerous for the neighbors, and ruins crops on their farms. Sadly, the elephant had to be killed. The body was left so that the carcass could provide food for other animals as it decomposed.

elephant dead

I didn’t take this picture intentionally, but I decided to include it here because this is how Craig and I spent our days. Our guide probably wouldn’t recognize us without out cameras against our faces.  We each took thousands of photos in just a few days – thank goodness for digital photography!

ele mirror

Another real highlight of our time at Schotia was seeing the lions.  There is an older male lion, and his two children, male and female. The first evening we spent at the reserve, we heard them roaring in the distance – it was exhilarating to hear! (The reserve is divided into a couple of very large sections, and there is no chance of the predatory animals reaching the guest housing.)

The Lions

Papa Lion shows his age in his hind quarters, which are much thinner than his son’s.
lioness face
Isn’t she stunning?

The lioness had a successful hunt one evening while we were there. All of them had a big meal, and then didn’t want to move the next morning!

The huntress has not yet cleaned the blood off her paws.
lion nap
Father and son, having their postprandial snooze.


The Warthogs

I got a real kick out of watching the warthogs.  They are such comical looking animals! There were loads of them at Schotia, and they mingled in with most of the other animals. I really don’t see how they manage to close their mouths, with those tusks sticking out!


I’m going to sign off for now, and I’ll come back soon with more animals: hippos, giraffes, and antelope. Here’s one last picture for today:

croc eyes
More about this fellow next time!

A Look Back: One Year of Being Homeless, Jobless, and Uninsured

On June 28, 2018, my husband Craig and I packed our bags into a rental car and drove away from Doylestown, PA, our home for the last twelve years. One year later, it’s time to take a look back.

A quick recap of our journey, geographically speaking: we visited friends and family along the east coast of the US, and then boarded a plane in Florida and headed to Ecuador. A couple of days in Quito, and then our long-awaited trip to the Galapagos Islands. We spent nine days on a small boat, sailing from one island to another, viewing the different species, snorkeling, and getting seasick (one of us, anyway.)

The Pacific Ocean in a tranquil moment.

Next, another road trip along the Avenue of the Volcanoes in Ecuador. I had no idea there were so many volcanoes in the world! I also had no idea how high altitude (13,000 feet) can sap the strength from your body and the oxygen from your lungs. We next visited a stunning waterfall and a town known for its hot springs. Cuenca saw us settle in for a month, followed by another month in the beach town of Olon.

Nope, not Switzerland – Ecuador!
Olon is a popular surfing spot.

In late October we caught a flight to Guatemala, and spend a wonderful couple of months in Antigua. Here we learned that explosives are an integral part of holiday celebrations in the area. It was all fun and games until a roof caught fire and burned down four or five buildings on New Year’s Eve.

Most of Antigua was destroyed by a powerful earthquake in 1775, including this beautiful cathedral.
A beauty queen at the Kite Festival in Guatemala.
Iglesia San Pedro Apostol

A highlight in the New Year was a brief visit to Cuba. Our cruise ship stopped in Cienfuegos and Havana just long enough to give us a taste of the island, and we promised ourselves we would return for a longer visit.

Yes, there are loads of old American cars in wonderful shape.
Che Guevera is a beloved hero.
The Havana Opera House.

Post-Cuba, we flew home for a visit to our families in New Jersey. It was a lot of fun to see friends and families, and to enjoy our grandson, a precocious three-year-old. Then off to Portugal for six weeks – a month in Lisbon followed by a road trip to see the smaller villages in the north.

A whimsical gargoyle

Bulgaria was one of our more eclectic destinations, and we enjoyed it thoroughly. Only thirty years out of communist domination, it was telling to see the difference in the attitudes of the people of different generations.

A typical massive statue from the Communist era.
The businessman who displayed this statue did not have a very positive image of America.
A small portion of the artwork at Rila Monastery.

We had originally planned to spend time pet-sitting in England, but that fell through for a variety of reasons. We then decided to also change our plans of spending a month in France helping out at a chateau, and we reworked the next part of our trip completely. We’re very glad we did, as France is now experiencing record-breaking high temperatures. I would never have survived 114 degree heat.

Instead of Europe, we chose to spend a block of time in South Africa. We’ve been in Cape Town for five weeks, and also took a road trip east along the Garden Route to visit a game preserve.

Table Mountain as seen from the roof of our first apartment in Cape Town.
Even the food trucks in Cape Town serve excellent coffee.

So – what’s it been like to live out of a suitcase for an entire year? One thing I can tell you, I’m pretty sick of my clothes! Since we changed plans mid-stream, this rendered the contents of my suitcase at best inappropriate; at worst, ineffective. We hadn’t expected Portugal or Bulgaria to be as nippy as they were when the sun goes down – gosh, I wished I’d brought a hat and gloves, and I got really sick of this blue sweater.

I’ve only used my swimsuit in the Galapagos, but at the price I paid for it, I’m certainly not leaving it behind! On the other hand, there were a number of items I jettisoned along the way: pants that were too baggy after I lost twenty pounds; a shirt with bloodstains I couldn’t remove (he was three years old and crying after a terrible fall – you’d have picked him up too), my beloved gypsy shoes that were so worn the leather split at the sides. (No worries – I found an identical pair online!)

And shoes – I miss my beautiful shoes! As any traveler knows, shoes are the thing that weigh the most. Airlines nowadays are merciless about the weight limit on bags, so I’m currently carrying only three pairs: low boots, nice-looking sneakers, and leather slip-ons. It’s hell, I tell you!

WhatsApp is a lifesaver, and if you don’t have it on your phone, download it immediately.  It provides high quality video chat capabilities for free over wifi, and often works on data as well. This has saved me a fortune, since calling home costs 25 cents per minute. That doesn’t sound like much, until you FaceTime with a three-year-old who spends the time giggling and saying “Poop, poop, poop” for the entire call. Potty humor is more palatable when it’s free.

Looking ahead, we are visiting the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls, and Chobe Park in Botswana, in mid-August. Then it’s north to Ethiopia to tour the Omo Valley and Lalibela, home of the ancient rock churches. I’m really looking forward to that! This will be followed by a month in Montenegro, on the Adriatic Sea, and then an extended visit to Italy, which we have yet to plan. (I’m open to suggestions. And visitors.)

I wrote the following on January 2019, as I reflected on our time away from home.

Being away from home for Christmas is weird. Being someplace warm for Christmas, although admittedly pleasant, is weird too. Being a pastor who just retired, and not having any worship leadership responsibilities on Christmas Eve, is even more weird. Not being with the kids, and not being immersed in the chaos that is Christmas with the DiMeo/Hammell/Leith family is – simply not right.  It was a very odd holiday indeed.

Couple that with the fact that Craig and I were both felled by colds that lasted from Christmas till beyond the New Year, and you’ll have an accurate image of our holiday.  Craig didn’t seem to mind it all too much, but I was fairly miserable. Here we are on January 15, and I feel as though the world didn’t have a Christmas season this year.

Not doing that again! I have insisted on a trip home for Christmas, because it is simply too awful to spend the holidays without family. At that point it will have been seven months since we were in the US, and that’s long enough! Craig is lobbying for a year’s extension added to our two-year trip, but I’m not agreeing. I want a home. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, here are a few more photos. The next blog post will highlight our safari adventures.

Another section of Rila Monastery.
Assisting his owner in earning a few coins.
feather eyes
A photoshoot in a park in Coimbra, Portugal.
Close-up of a fresco at Rila Monastery

Yesterday we visited Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens – they are stunning!