This is one of a series of occasional posts about objects that I’ve acquired on my travels
The waistcoat from Waziristan
‘Where does it come from?’ I asked the shopkeeper. His was a small, open shop in the town of Gilgit, in northern Pakistan. It was one of the few where you could buy something of interest, in terms of local craft. The waistcoat was covered all over in vibrant mirror pattern embroidery.
‘Waziristan’, he answered.
‘Where?’ When he repeated the name, it sounded as remote or unreal as Shangrila. This was 1995, and Pakistan hadn’t yet come into focus as a source of jihad and terrorism. Tensions were building in some areas, but we were visiting as regular tourists, something almost unthinkable now in terms of a journey by road from the Chinese border to Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Gilgit itself was not a fun place to be though, even back then. I noted in my travel diary that ‘Gilgit has polo ponies and very little else’, and that women do not walk the streets. Later, on a second visit in 1997, we saw half-naked men with a fierce, haunted look in their eyes and sporting red weals on their back from the self-inflicted lashes during a recent religious festival. There were army snipers positioned on the rooftops too, alert to any outbreaks of trouble.
But in 1995, the place was still receiving foreign visitors, and we could wander the streets more or less safely. And then the merchant told me an irresistible tale, of how local merchants crossed the mountains by night to avoid official checks, and bought costume and jewellery from the local tribespeople, transporting it back secretly across the border.
He added another seductive element to the pitch, as I offered a lower price than he quoted:
‘You were our rulers once, so for you I give a discount,’ he announced with great dignity, and the deal was clinched. I suppose I was half seduced by the fact that I might still have memsahib status, a touch of colonial authority, and a little horrified that we were still thought of as empire-builders. Both emotions worked in his favour.
Only now do I look up on the map and find exactly where Waziristan lies - on the Western edge of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan. It is called a ‘federally administered tribal area’ of Pakistan, and the Wazirs were never ruled by the British, unlike their neighbours, though they made life difficult with raiding parties into occupied territories. The waistcoat, as you can see, is bright and bursting with cheerful colour, a mix of elegant symmetry and crazy patchworking of the different pieces. Yet I learn now that in Waziristan, ‘women are carefully guarded, and every household must be headed by a male figure’. Could this be a male waistcoat? Possibly, although internet images I view now under Waziri embroidery show skirts and women’s attire.
Whatever, whoever it was made for, it is a beautiful piece of work. It’s stiff and unyielding as a waistcoat but I like that too, and it sits well over a plain purple dress that I have, or to top a pair of black trousers. It marks a time and place for me, and as well as joy in wearing it, I feel a sadness too that the world has changed and now I will never make it to Waziristan.
Butterfly, Dragonfly: Life writing in France
A late summer morning in the Limousin. At Chateau La Creuzette, shafts of sharp sunlight pierce the tree canopies – the grand old cedar, oaks and chestnuts – and set the dewdrops on the lawn sparkling. Fire and water meet, an ancient symbol of alchemy. Will our class achieve this same kind of fusion, turning life experience into gleaming, golden words?
Over the reedy pond, an enormous dragonfly hovers, bulbous, an iridescent deep blue. This too is an old emblem of transformation, and there will be many more dragonflies coming and going during the week, bringing their own particular touch of magic in the garden. And as the day warms and the sun strokes the petals of the flowers, butterflies appear in the gardens to bask there: lemon, gold, cream and rust, mottled and marbled in colour. They alight, pause, and flutter on. Symbols of the soul. Libelulle and papillon, alchemy and the soul, dragonfly and butterfly.
At ten o’clock, our writing group gathers in the ‘cave’ – that means cellar in French , (it’s subterranean) but it might as well be an alchemist’s cave, a place where we prepare, brew and distill our word potions during the week. (take a look at the photo gallery at the end!) We’re here on a kind of quest, a journey of life writing. Some of the eight members have flown half way round the world to be here to take this course. It’s a big responsibility. so I’d better be alert – watchful like the dragonfly, sensitive like the butterfly. Will I be able to offer them what they need? Alchemy says: ‘Start with what you have, with what is often overlooked and thrown away.’ This is the way real transformation begins: making gold from what might be seen as dust. So we start with childhood memories; everyone has them, but they have a potency like nothing else. Find them in depths, fish them up and write them. Simplicity is best. Don’t elaborate, just let them be revealed in the light. Then they’ll sparkle like those dewdrops in the sun. We work thus at the dawn of the world, our personal world, where the seeds of creation are stored.
Later, we trek through the terrain of adult years, charting chronology, recording its peaks, its troughs, its moments of joy and terror. As a British tutor working with eight South Africans, I am in shock when some of them write about being hijacked, robbed, or having a gun put to their heads. But the dragonfly has to keep on hovering, not dip in the pool and drown. I too am learning from this. And so do they. The implicit question as people continue to write down their experiences, is, ‘Where am I in all this?’ Life writing is nothing without a degree of personal reflection. But, I teach them, a little goes a long way, like a powerful spice. Let the main ingredients – events, encounters, experiences – do the work of the telling, but add your own touches of philosophical reflection to give it that special flavour.
Life writing isn’t just about recording events, but is also a process of seeking knowledge. It can change the way we view our lives.
Our lives intermesh with others, and these too come into the scope of life writing, sometimes with intense significance. One of our number, Annette, is on a quest to understand the short life of her daughter, an accomplished, beautiful woman who died in her prime:
"Like a butterfly, freeing itself from its cocoon, she came into this world, gasping for air and struggling to free herself from the birth canal.......With the same effort to be born, it took three days for her to leave this world, slowly spinning herself away. On her birthday, 42 years later, almost to the hour, we lay her body in the ground. Her life as short as that of butterflies. My butterfly was flying freely."
She wants to write a tribute to her, and this butterfly symbol begins to take on its own life in the course. As the week flows on, we see butterflies everywhere –not only in the garden but at dinner, a (paper) butterfly clipped onto every napkin, in one of the astonishing table settings created nightly at La Creuzette dinners, and flying colourfully on scarves and jewellery and designs around us. There is no escaping the butterfly, and its implication of soul. The group becomes closely bonded, unafraid to share personal revelations, but always putting the writing and the journey first.
By the end of the week, I know for sure that life writing can be work for the soul. I have taught many classes of life writing, but the chance to bring a small group of committed people together, in these glorious surroundings (not essential, but it helps!) to connect and work together recording some of the most intense experiences of their lives, shows me that the process can be truly transformative. And the participants do this work for themselves. I am only the guide, frowning over my route maps, steering them along the way. I help them to keep walking on, but each person takes those steps independently.
Yes, there is a touch of magic to it, symbolised by the sorcerer dragonfly with his uncanny presence, and the delicacy of the butterfly with her elusive beauty of the soul.
At the end of the course, Annette buys herself a butterfly necklace. She knows her direction now, and is ready to travel further – quite literally, in one sense, on a Silk Road trip, which her daughter always wanted to do. And the class gives me a gift – a dragonfly pendant. I am wearing it now, as I write this.
Next year at La Creuzette, it will be a different journey, with different travellers. I will be unrolling my maps, but aware that even with the terrain marked out ahead of us, it will always be a venture into the unknown. And my job will be to help the group take this trip, moving forward as one. We will work together, as this year, dividing our time between the soothing dim light of our ‘cave’ at La Creuzette, and the brilliance of nature and sunlight around us, butterflies and dragonflies gracing the garden, when we step out to take the air.
The second in an occasional series of posts about the Silk Road, a subject I’ve researched, lectured and written about extensively over the last twenty years. I’ve taken two trips along the Silk Road itself, and visited a number of Silk Road countries separately too – Syria, Uzbekistan and Turkey, for instance.
For nearly two thousand years, merchants travelled the Silk Road routes running from China to the West. Their best-known cargo was of course silk, but many other goods were traded between East and West, including wool, carpets and amber from the West, and mirrors, gunpowder, porcelain and paper from China. Merchants travelled in various groups and guises, from humble foot pedlars to huge caravan trains of camels, stretching literally for miles across the horizon. Other beasts of burden included donkeys, horses and yaks.
It was rare to travel the whole of the Silk Road during most periods of history. Bandits, border skirmishes and unreasonable customs officials made it difficult to trek all the way, so merchandise was often transferred from one group of traders to another en route. Many middlemen make for steep prices, so the final selling price of the goods was often hugely above their original cost. The terrain was difficult, often treacherous, involving high mountain passes, deserts, and severe climates. Just the fact of bringing merchandise safely from one country to another was a near miracle. Some groups of people excelled as Silk Road traders, one example being the long-vanished Sogdians of Central Asia, who were said to send their boys out along the Silk Road from the age of five, and were trading on their own account by the age of 12.
Along the way, merchants stayed at caravanserais. These traditionally consisted of a central courtyard, with water for the animals, and store rooms around the sides on the ground floor. Lodging rooms were on the upper floor, and the sturdy doors were firmly locked at night so that the merchants, their goods and beasts could rest safely. Some of these old caravanserais can still be found in Central Asian countries such as Turkey and Syria. They range from smaller, humbler versions to ones which are the size of cathedrals and almost as grand! At the very best caravanserais, there were proper beds, hot and cold water and even their own shops and banking facilities. Merchants preferred their caravanserais to be beyond the city walls, so that they could arrive and leave easily – the authorities preferred them in the town centre for the opposite reason, so that they could collect taxes due from the caravans before they had a chance to leave the district!
Play the slide show by clicking on first photo. There are lots more pictures hidden from view!
Many stories must have been swapped in the caravanserais, and both folk tales and religious ideas are known to have been ‘traded’ along the Silk Road. If two merchants came from opposite ends of the Silk Road, they could get by in conversation as long as they could each speak a Turkic language. These Turkic languages, spoken over a range of countries, are just about similar enough for people to understand each other, given a little help. One merchant might set up his conversation with another by starting off with an opening such as, ‘My conversation today will relate to camels’.
Other facilities along the way included ‘service stations’ where locals made a living from catering to travellers’ needs. Merchants carrying costly porcelain knew that they could get any breakages mended in Tashkent, for instance, and thus arrive with their goods at least apparently intact. The trade routes stretched from Xian in eastern China to Byzantium, branching off into practically every country in the Middle East. Some scholars claim that Venice was the final destination of the Silk Route – and some archaeologists even quote the UK as a credible terminus, as Chinese silk has been found in the grave of an Iron Age king.
Merchants traded their goods in the bazaars, which are still a feature of life in the Middle and Far East today. The Great Bazaar in Istanbul, named Kapali Carsi, is said to be the finest example of a medieval bazaar. It began as a small strong room, the Bedestan , built in 1461 and swiftly grew until finally it covered 100 acres, and now has 18 gates and about 4000 shops. All kinds of bargaining behaviour was evolved; complex negotiations might be done simply by hand gestures, carried out beneath the cover of a cloth or shawl to prevent prying eyes from knowing what deals were being struck. Bargaining today remains a key feature of the colourful bazaars of Central Asia and beyond, bazaars which still create fabulous, exotic displays to tempt their customers. The Silk Road no longer exists in the same way today, but its spirit is alive its traders and merchandise.
Read some of the myths and legends from the Silk Road in Stories from the Silk Road – Cherry Gilchrist (Barefoot Books 1999)
Do take a look at the previous blog post – a short homage to the horses in the form of three haiku poems
‘All we know is that when man first came to the Camargue, there were white horses and black bulls.’
So says Brenda, an Englishwoman who has been breeding Camargue horses for many years, and she should know. The white horses are almost the trademark of the area, groups of mares and foals left to roam over wide stretches of salt marshes, which are fringed with reeds, copses of pines, and at this time of late summer are covered in a froth of pale mauve sea lavender. Carefully selected stallions service the mares, while those not chosen for breeding are likely to be gelded and used for riding. The ‘guardians’ are the real riding elite here, the men who tend the bulls and tame the horses, but ordinary horse-trekking is where we’re at, in a group of riders ready to set off for the sea, some ten miles distant.
Has our recent riding prepared us for an all-day trek? Are bottoms, backs and thighs strong enough to withstand around six hours in the saddle? Even the most experienced rider (I’m making a come-back, Robert is putting in his training hours) can end up sore if out of practice. We’ll see.
We help to catch and groom our mounts, Loulevain and Garrigan, along with half a dozen other riders from different parts of France. Saddles are Western-style, which means you ride ‘long’ in the stirrups and loose with the reins, using only one hand. The horses are bred bigger than they used to be, and can go up to 15 hands or so, to cope with modern-sized riders, while still keeping the Camargue stamina, colour and character.
Our leader Caroline (pronounced Caroleen), gives us a brief explanation of the riding style, and warns us that horses may eat before, after, but never during the ride. We must go single file along roads and when cantering, and if anyone is in trouble they are to shout the universal command ‘Stop’!
‘Do not hang onto the reins, if you are afraid,’ she says. ‘Non. You have a thick mane to hold onto.’
She speaks in French unless we ask her to repeat in English. Good for improving my French, but I’m sometimes a touch confused when she releases a string of commands, each one faster than the last.
The ride takes us first along tracks sheltered by tall bamboo and fronded reeds, and through open flat fields that remind me of East Anglian fens. The difference being that here we pass herds of black bulls, and see white egrets take off in flight as we approach, sometimes followed by the majestic upward sweep of a heron’s wings. We follow dykes and small canals, trace old paths along a watery margin or sometimes have to ride single file by the side of busy roads – my least favourite part. French drivers seem to give horses little quarter. But off the main road, drivers slow, smile, and wave as we go by. Everyone wants to see white horses in the Camargue! The horses go steadily, with confidence; they must be ridden well but can be trusted to do their job
The biggest surprise of the day: we take the horses on a car ferry! Leading them onto the roll on/off flat bottomed boat, the Bac de Sauvage, we become stars for a while. Astonished passengers whip out their cameras. The horses stand placidly as we cross the Petit Rhone, and then form a beautiful cavalcade once more as we re-mount, white manes and tails flowing, necks strong and flexed, hooves neatly lifted in walk, trot, or a ‘galop’ – there is no specific French word for ‘canter’.
Sebastien’s horse is pounding the water with his front hoof. We’re riding through a shallow lagoon, the safe track marked out by long poles plunged at intervals into the mud. This may look like a charming circus trick, but the rider is inexperienced and does not know that this is horse talk for, ‘Water! Great – I’m going to roll in it.’ The cries of, Caroline, urging the rider to move on, are in vain. The horse drops onto its front knees like a camel, back legs following and Sebastien has no choice but to bale out in the water. Luckily, all he gets is a dousing, and the horse is brought back onto his feet before he has a chance to roll and, potentially, break the all-important ‘tree’ that holds the whole saddle together.
Now we’re into the real ‘marais’, with its marsh, mud flats and shallow ‘etangs’ such as the one we’ve just ridden through. There is a sense of primitive wildness, and a kind of collective awe descends on our company as we near our destination. We are trekking onto a private beach to which only local residents can get access. The view now opens up; the scene changes from one of eerie stretches of reed, mud and water, to Sunday picnic time on a Mediterranean beach. Not crowded, but not empty. Brenda is already there with a pick-up truck and a trailer that blossoms into a kind of snack bar; from its counter she dispenses couscous, ham, cheese and apples, along with cool, cool water – it’s hot out here – and wine rose and red for those who wish. But always see to your animals first. The horses are tied up in a long double row, girths slackened, bridles off, where they can doze during a well-earned rest. It’s been nearly three hours getting here.
Swim, eat, swap stories, and mount again for the – aagh – three hours back again. Actually, it is not so bad until just a few miles from home when some prefer to dismount and walk and others of us try to flex and stretch our stiff thighs. The girl in front of me is a comedienne, trained in theatre arts; she does a series of acrobatic poses on her pony to exercise her muscles. Robert takes his right foot out of the stirrup to ease cramp.
‘Non, non, non,’ barks Caroline crossly. ‘I want that you come back alive. Garrigan, he is bit stupid in the head.’
Robert, I think, has settled Garrigan remarkably well. He may not be the most experienced rider, but his calm and relaxed attitude goes down well with horses, and Garrigan has changed from being a fretful head-tosser to a steady and gentle ride over the last couple of days. We are all glad to have had a two hour ‘balade’ yesterday, a warm-up in preparation for the all-day ‘randonee’ today.
My horse, Loulevain, has been excellent. He is willing and reliable. His only bad habit is that he’s an accomplished thief, snatching an illicit bite to eat when my focus is elsewhere. I have had to pull a whole leafy bamboo cane out his mouth at one point. In the same way that cats wait until your attention is elsewhere before they jump on your lap, so Loulevain bides his time till I am dreaming or chatting to my neighbour. Then he lunges towards the verge and has a mouth stuffed with leaves before I’ve a chance to shorten the reins and kick him on. Still, I’m glad he isn’t totally predictable.
We amble through the small, charmingly ramshackle village of Astouin, a cluster of cottages in the Camargue fens, and then we’re back. Drink, horses – you’ve earned it. And so have we.
Next day we are a little stiff, but nothing terrible. The only battle scars on us both are where the mosquitos have managed to bite us through jodphurs and jeans respectively; we’ll spray every inch of ourselves in future.
Ride at Brenda’s (local farm, with accommodation and equestrian centre) at http://www.brendatourismeequestre.com/. Takes novices and experienced riders, also bring your own horse. Our two day stay cost around 214 euros per person, including two nights b&b, plus dinners and a picnic lunch, a two hour ride and an all-day ride.
The next post has my haiku homage to the horses. Too much alliteration already! But please do take a look.
Three haiku, for the
White Horses of the Camargue
Toss your manes, pick paths
through salt marsh, feathered reeds, lagoons.
Carry us to the sea.
As the sun rises,
Your hooves follow secret ways,
made in ancient times.
Gleaming white, you pass
through pale sea lavender, to
reach the water’s edge.
The Silk Road
I have made two trips along the Silk Road, and other visits to countries along its path - Syria, Turkey and Uzbekistan. I became fascinated by the mystique and history of this ancient trade route, and enchanted by its vibrancy today. In my book for children, Stories from the Silk Road, I told some of the legends recounted by travellers, and wrote about their colourful context. I also began giving illustrated talks about the Silk Road to arts societies and on cruises. From the many photos I took and pictures I gathered, I’d like to create a few little themed galleries and slide shows to share with you on this blog, starting with:
The Legend of Rainbow Silk
Silk patterned in rainbow shades is still the national material of Uzbekistan, and legends suggest how it first came into being. One is that the wavering, iridescent ripples of the design were inspired by gazing into a running stream. Another is that an irritable Khan or ruler commanded one of his courtiers, on pain of death, to provide some new novelty to please him. The desperate old adviser had resigned himself to execution, when on the last morning he woke with tears in his eyes – and saw a rainbow through his wet lashes!
In these images, you can also see silk in production by traditional methods in Uzbekistan.
Kuan Yin and her oracle in Gloucestershire
I enter the Kuan Yin temple in Singapore. I’m the only Westerner here, and I try to move quietly, unobtrusively in case I breach any detail of temple etiquette. Statues of Kuan Yin and other gods and goddesses in varied sizes and forms are grouped on shrines and in niches. The predominant colours are red and gold; the air is full of the smoke of joss sticks, varied altars are piled with offerings of fruit and flowers, and donation boxes are regularly stuffed with notes. I notice how many young people are here worshipping at the shrines, consulting the oracle, and invoking their own personal encounter with the deity.
But later, when I find out more about Kuan Yin, I discover that here is a lady who cannot be pinned down by religion or culture. She slips from one to another, from Buddhism to Taoism to Shintoism. She has connections with Christianity, and the ancient religion of Egypt. She may be revered as a goddess or as a spirit, a bodhisattva (a Buddha-to-be) or an immortal who was once an exceptional human child. Kuan Yin goes by other names, too, but they all mean one thing in essence: She Who Hears the Cries of the World. She is a listening ear, a saving arm, a calming presence.
And she has an oracle. More than that, her temples in the Far East are full of men and women seeking advice on a personal problem or significant question by consulting this oracle. The oracle consists of 100 numbered sticks which are shaken in a brass or wooden cylinder, vigorously and noisily, until at last one jumps out. The number corresponds to a reading, which in turn is a poetic reflection, augmented by an interpretation of what this means in individual life. Here, the seeker hopes, is the wise advice which will help to resolve their query. To me this is an extraordinary validation of divination as a part of spirituality, connecting it to sacred space, whether a temple or a church – something all but lost in the West.
I first ‘met’ Kuan Yin in her famous temple at Penang in December 2011, while Robert and I were working as lecturers on a cruise. I seized the chance to explore her domain, and witness the oracle in action. Then at Singapore, one of our next stops, came this second chance to visit one of her chief temples. Here I tried out the oracle for myself, and was given a copy of it in translation as a gift from the temple, something to be treasured.
I’d had a copy of her Oracle for some years, in fact, in the form of a book by Stephen Karcher, produced in an accessible version for Westerners but faithful to the spirit of the original. But discovering the living tradition in those two temples spurred me on to find out more about her, and to acquire my own set of oracle sticks. This I did in a shop close by to the Singapore temple – but then how on earth was I to decipher the Chinese numbers? A helpful site on the internet finally gave me the tools to do that. http://www.mandarintools.com/numbers.html.
Then I fancied having a statue of Kuan Yin. I was due to present an evening to my current Nine Ladies group (see my book ‘The Circle of Nine’), exploring the Kuan Yin archetype, so there was something of a deadline. Could I find a figure in time that pleased me, and which didn’t cost a vast amount?
Kuan Yin’s chief symbols are the moon, the sea and a dragon. She is a patron of sailors, and there are many temples to her on the sea shore. She is merciful, and it is said that just as her heart is open to all, so should one’s own heart be open when approaching her. Elaborate rituals and paraphernalia are of little importance compared to that. Still, it would be nice to have a visual reminder of her. I hovered over bronze statues of Kuan Yin advertised on the internet, depicted with the crescent moon behind her, and a dragon at her feet, but in the end chose a relatively simple one in white porcelain. The image of her as a ‘white goddess’ has appeal to me, perhaps because it carries a quality of universality, of the archetype behind the archetypes of the feminine. So that’s what I went for – delivered from, of all places, a Bonsai centre! http://www.got-bonsai.co.uk/ For around £45 I received a speedy delivery of my white Kuan Yin, nestling safely in a cheerful Chinese patterned cardboard case.
She was described as ‘blanc de Chine’, which meant nothing to me until I looked it up and found, to my delight, that this figure had been made in Fujian province in China, and stemmed from a centuries-old tradition of making Kuan Yin and other sacred figures there. Ah – the People’s Kuan Yin! Lineage means more to me than lavish originality; this little figure has provenance to me. Excellent essay at http://www.holymtn.com/gods/BlancdeChine.htm!
And she has a secret resource: an internal reservoir which can be filled with water, and which then drips ‘blessed Dew’ for several minutes. It took me a little while to discover that you don’t look for a hole in her head to pour it into – you pour it into the hole at her feet, then turn her upside down to feed the reservoir before setting her the right way up again! That little challenge solved, she became a beautiful and serene model of a spirit, deva or deity – call her what you will – who presided over a very successful evening of discussion, meditation and oracle consultation in our front room last night.
The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion – Stephen Karcher
Bodhisattva of Compassion: the Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin – John Blofeld
Kuan Yin: Myths and Revelations of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion – Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay & Kwok Man-Ho
Divination: The Search for Meaning - Cherry Gilchrist
Meeting the mother stone on Easter Island
On Mother’s Day, in March 2008, I met the ancestor mothers of Easter Island. My husband Robert and I were lecturers on a cruise sailing up the coast of South America, and the ship (Voyages of Discovery) made a six day trip out into the wilds of the ocean to the most remote inhabited island on earth: Easter Island, home of the giant statues, known as the Moai. And more, we discovered.
Since then, I have gradually begun to join up the dots between ‘ancestor veneration’, worldwide, age-old cults of honouring the ancestors, and family history research as we know it today. We too, I now believe, are looking for ways to experience a connection with our ancestors.
Here’s a shortened version of how I wrote about it in Growing Your Family Tree.
Day two of our brief visit, and something has tickled my imagination in a guidebook: a mention of an ancient round stone representing ‘the navel of the world’. Te Pito Te Henua is one of the other names for Easter Island and that in itself means the navel and uterus of the world, so this stone would therefore be the navel of the navel. Robert agreed: we should try to find it.’
We hired the only the woman taxi driver on the island, mainly because she’d been recommended as helpful. But she turns out to be crucial to the plan.
‘Ah, so you want to go to the place that we visit for energy,’ she says. She takes us over to the north coast of the island, turning down an unpaved road to a small and completely empty beach. Among the rocks above the sea line, a round wall of stones and boulders has been created, about three feet high and eight feet in diameter. Within the circle it encloses, a huge, and beautifully smooth ovoid stone has been placed, like a giant egg. Four similar but smaller stones are set around it at regular intervals, forming a square. It has a Celtic feel about it - we could almost be on the West Coast of Ireland, or in the Hebrides – but here we are, over two thousand miles away from any mainland, and over eight thousand from home.
It is first and foremost a place for women, our driver tells us. She first of all invites me alone to accompany her into the circle, and seats me on one of the smaller stones, encouraging me to place my hands on the great stone egg in front of me. She sits opposite and does likewise.
‘Put your hands on it gently,’ she says. ‘Relax.’
Women of the island have been coming here for hundreds of years, she tells me. They come to pray for help, for a safe childbirth, and even for the delivery of their babies. The stone is the mother, their mother, and the island’s mother.
‘What do you feel?’
I feel as though the stone is not a stone at all, but an egg with the shell stripped away, and the delicate but all powerful pulse of life moving within its membrane. I sense the women who have laid their hands here, and the ancestral mothers whose spirit is contained within the stone itself. Currents of energy seem to be running up my arms.
I tell her some of this, and she is satisfied. She steps outside the circle and invites Robert to come and join me. Now I can suggest to him how to sit and place his hands, and, rather to his surprise, he also experiences waves of energy.
We leave the enclosure. It’s time to get back to the harbour and board our ship for another six day voyage, back to the coast of South America. Both of us are reflective after the experience, and feel privileged that one of the islanders trusted us enough to teach us about her sacred site. We first met the father of the island in the myriad forms of the Moai male ancestors, but now we have also met its mother, the one stone representing all the female ancestors.
This is a Mother’s Day that I won’t forget.
From Growing Your Family Tree Piatkus 2010
Author of books on family history, relationships, alchemy, myths & legends. Life writing tutor teaching for Universities of Oxford & Exeter. Keen on quirky, ancient and mysterious things.