Travel – Experiencing Religion.

 

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When we travel or journey we go to see things, particularly buildings, amongst our other experiences, and it is unlikely that we will not see something religious in our journey, usually some buildings which are the outward manifestations of the religion that lives where we are visiting, and also its history.

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The existence of religions and their place in society are obvious and not for this discussion, but how it manifests itself in the places we visit has long fascinated me. When you consider the buildings that we most often visit, they are usually magnificent, a testament to the place of religion in the society, or at least its historic place in society.

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If society has seen a golden age at some point in its history, so there will be churches, cathedrals, temples, mosques that bear witness to that. This is true across the world. Europe, India, Asia all have magnificence to show us which links to their golden ages.

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Sometimes those countries have now become less golden, less powerful and the religious images that we see have become as much a travellers place as a focus in the society. The buildings they use now are more modest although not less devout.

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The common features of these buildings of the golden ages are scale, colour and intricacy. The more powerful the place the bigger, the more intricate, the more magnificent they are. They have become works of art at the same times as being place of worship

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We live in far more secular societies than existed in the days when these buildings were made, and the buildings have become increasingly symbolic as well in being less a part of daily life.

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Historically you can see the way in which a Cathedral started as perhaps a small church and grew as empires and nations grew, but you also see that as power and authority diminishes, the buildings don’t become less important, indeed the opposite albeit for other purposes.

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The one part of the world where this does not seem to have happened is Sub-Saharan Africa. There the emergence of what can be called the major religions, Christianity, Islam etc. came relatively late in their history and only fairly recently came to replace traditional spirituality. But even there a building and its symbolism are very important even if the building starts as an old tent, and then as congregations grow a bigger tent and then a permanent structure which candevelop and grow further. Many evangelical churches and religions are emerging like that now in Africa and also in China.

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When we see these places from the slightly artificial perspective of a traveller, looking at the same time at religion, history and culture, they can teach us an awful lot about human beings too and what has driven and continues to drive them

Colourful Travelling

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When I look back at travels I have made, journeys completed, the memories are always associated with colours. A place, some food, a building, nature, all these are associated with deep colours, sharp colours and they reflect the mood of the memory. Even difficult travelling experiences have colours attached to them

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The shades and intensities of the colours may differ from place to place but nonetheless it is colour that guides the mind. At home our own colours surround us every day, and being at home we can to some extent control the colours we see, try to ensure that they are the ones we like most. But somehow the colours never quite seem so intense. It is, I am sure, partly due to over familiarity and partly because our choices are made to create an environment that we feel comfortable in, and can blend into.

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Colour affects the imagination. When we see a building or a town or village in colours that are not familiar we wonder why, and there is a nervous admiration for the bravery of it. The purity of colours in nature can be spellbinding; the mixtures of the colours of nature’s palate surpass anything that an artist can create by mixing. The primary colours are intense sharp and pure.

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Then there is the interaction of nature and its creatures. See a butterfly resting and marvel at its colours and realise that each one of these seemingly random combinations of colour has a reason, a camouflage in the actual environment in which it exists.

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Why does food that is colourful seem to taste more exciting that the staples of life which we need to survive? Even the combinations of colours in a meal in a foreign place make the experience of eating more enervating and satisfying.

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Landscapes that unfold in front of us carry varieties of colours with mountains melting into hills and fields and even to the sea where the contrasts of blues and greens echo the land which houses the seas and oceans.

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Even under the seas and oceans we experience a world of unique colours. Their combinations and the creatures that live their blend in and give wonderful contrasts to the background shades of the undersea world.

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When I was young I was given a box of crayons, the few basic colours, and as time when on I wanted to get a bigger set because it had more colours and shades of those colours. I was no artist but the joy of the varieties of colours inspired me, and now there they are in the journeys I take.

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Travel Broadens The Mind – they say

 

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This expression is so widely stated and so accepted that it has almost become a platitude or even a cliché. It suggests that the very experience of travel and exposing oneself to other influences, cultures and experiences ensure a better understanding of the world we live in and the people in it; I subscribe to that.

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I read a blog today, not about travelling but about politics, (please don’t disappear this blog is not about politics!) and the content frankly shocked me accepting as I do the outlook of this phrase. Without going into detail the blog reflected upon the attitudes of the people of one country viewed from the writer’s country. The shock lay in the fact that the writer, who had been to the country he talked about, ascribed negative attitudes and motivations to the people of the other country with a degree and ferocity that bore absolutely no resemblance to my own experiences. These observations by the writer were not apparently, borne of any bad experiences in the country; simply a set of attitudes or one might call them prejudices that seemed to have overcome the supposed broadening of the mind.

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Now I am not naïve enough not to know that politics makes people say things they might not actually feel, nor am I conceited enough to think that my attitudes are always right, but in this case the attitudes were separate to the main thrust of the article, and they seemed to come from the heart. Had I not been to the place I might be inclined to accept them, but that would not have been fair to the country.

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Maybe I’m wrong about the idea that travel broadens the mind, maybe the writer’s idea of travel is simply to visit a resort in the sun where the experience given is so close to that of home that it is almost undistinguishable? Maybe the writer was looking for trouble or maybe so set in the idea of the superiority of their own environment that they could not open their mind to a different one?

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Being an avid reader of travel writers I wondered whether the real truth is that, as my favourite travel writer Bruce Chatwin writes:

“Travel doesn’t merely broaden the mind it makes the mind”?   or

as GK Chesterton wrote:

“They say that travel broadens the mind but you must have the mind”   or

as Paul Theroux has written:

“Extensive travelling induces a feeling of encapsulation, and travel, so broadening at first, contracts the mind”

I am still of the view that travel broadens the mind but I wonder?

The Coffee Cooperative – Costa Rica

 

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As well as being famous for its commitment to the ecology, being famous for not having an army, and being famous for volcanoes, Costa Rica is about Coffee. Some of the very best coffee in the world is grown there, and has been grown since the 18th century mostly in the mountains that form a spine through the country.

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Much of the coffee is grown by cooperatives, groups of very small farmers who have been brought together to crate the scale necessary for economic development of coffee. More than 10% of the population belong to cooperatives, and the cooperative are successful not just in providing an income for the members but also in passing residual profits back to develop the communities and the environment and to develop other businesses benefiting the members.

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A day at a coffee coop is a memorable experience and the Coopetarrazu situated in San Marcos de Tarrazu is a great one to go to. It was founded in 1960 and has grown to have more than 3000 members who grow coffee together and sell it to the coop for sale in the market.

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When you come over the mountain into the valley of San Marcos your nostrils are immediately filled with the scent of roasting coffee coming up from roaster in the town below you. Like all agricultural areas it seems a scene of tranquillity but actually a hive of activity.

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Trees planted to give a natural shade and also to give back to the soil shade the rows of coffee bushes. The recycling of everything used in the coffee making process is a priority here including water and the dried husks of the bean.

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Harvesting starts in November and is done by hand by local people and also pickers who cross the border from Nicaragua with their families and are given shelter, pay and assistance in managing their money which has to last them through the year after the picking season. Hard work I can tell you!

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One of the challenges of picking coffee in this area are snakes of which there are a number of venomous species in Costa Rica. One of the ways they are dealt with is to feed the snakes before picking time to make them sleep while the picking goes on.

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The profits left after paying the growers are ploughed back by the cooperative to benefit the members in infrastructure development, ensuring the quality of the soil and even into investing in local businesses like grocery stores or petrol stations to benefit the members.

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“Cupping” tasting the new crop of coffee is an art similar to that of the established wine taster, and while I can know great coffee when I taste it, the varieties of flavours that an experienced person can detect in a cup of coffee is extraordinary.

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We all talk a lot about the benefits of communities and how they should work together, and here you can see that happening. Here the cooperative system has proved itself really successful and a long-term benefit to future prosperity in the area.

Travelling North or South

 

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The world has traditionally been divided between north and south, not just because it is split by the equator, but also because the geography, history, culture, politics, climate and way of life of each part has been seen to be different. Sometimes that division is as simple as saying the north is cold and the south is hot. Sometimes it is more complex, but within this tradition is also the understanding that the North is richer, better educated and more prosperous than the south, and therefore more ordered and safer.

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If you accept the equator as being that dividing line, and of course that is arbitrary, traditionally you could look at the map o the world at the countries in it and see clearly that the problems of the world were in the south, the wars the poverty, the danger, and the north was the safe place to travel. But today if you look at the same map with the same divide, the story is different. Increasingly the problems of the world are found in the north

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The north is still richer and more ordered but undoubtedly wars and the fear of danger are by increasingly in the north. Is that simply an accident of history, or is it a function of the south actually becoming safer and the north more dangerous. There is no one reason but the facts speak for themselves and so should travellers be looking more to the south of the world for their destinations?

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Well it is still vey poor and it is harder to get around and you can get stranded, but at the same time the south has got its act together as far as travellers are concerned. Countries understand that not all travellers are the same so cater for the whole range from luxury to backpacker, they understand their earning power from travellers, and so their attitudes are different. No longer is the traveller the interloper but now the traveller is the welcome guest whose motives are simply to understand and to enjoy.

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There is always the traveller who decries the increases in numbers to destinations, since those travellers are looking for the raw flavour of the unexplored, but for most of us the opportunity to explore the verdant exciting and fascinating south of the world is only just beginning

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Wanderlust

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I don’t make long term plans about travelling a journey. I like to ponder where I want to go and then other than taking time to deal with the formalities of travel, visas tickets and satisfying the official permissions of life, I like to just go and do it. There is this edginess in side me that needs to get moving. It is as if life at home, however pleasant, familiar, comfortable and enjoyable it is amongst the familiar, ones family and friends, is unsatisfying. That edginess starts, you become distracted the next destination looms. I am addicted to cigarettes and chocolate but even they don’t create that same edginess, they are mild and comfortable compared to the need to get moving again.

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I need to decide where to go. At the end of many journeys has been the sense that I want to go back to where I have been to see and learn more, to take advantage of what I have seen and learned already and delve deeper into that world. But inevitably I go somewhere new. It’s rare to retrace my steps. Travelling is a bit like a life lesson that you know, that the first joy of a place or an experience can never be repeated, it feels pure and new only once and so you don’t retrace your steps but you go to new places all the time.

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I wonder often when I come back from a journey what the most satisfying and enjoyable moment is, and I often think that the most exciting moment of a journey is the beginning, the moment you set out on that road to who knows what. You close the door behind you and are gone, the world maintains its daily routines but at that moment you seem to detach yourself, start to look and watch things that you do every day as if you are detached from them.

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Travelling is not all easy. You face difficulties, disappointments and even dangers and you know that is going to happen again, but you learn never to expect the easy outcome, the place you are going is not designed to make you happy, it’s designed to make the inhabitants happy. You know that on your journey you are going to bump into things, and see with open eyes things that you take for granted, see the extremes of kindness and misery that you don’t need to face at home.

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Does this urge to wander, to move, to travel to experience change you? I think so. When I return to the familiar to the people and things I love, I know I am different to the person who walked out the door some time before. It does change you. Travel and you realise that there is little in life that is black and white however convenient it may be. Nothing is ever quite the same again.

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Then, satisfied you get your feet under the table, you ruminate on what has gone before and try to put some words together to describe it and before you know it that edginess is back, the wanderlust is rising up again. Why? I think its because the greatest joy in travel is to be able to experience all the time everyday things as if for the first time. To be able constantly to rediscover that feeling of not taking anything for granted and finding novelty everywhere.

 

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The Travel Bore

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I learned a long time ago that when returning from a journey, heart and mind filled with reflections on the things I have seen, people met, the places explored, the scents, emotions, secrets and sensations experienced, its really not good to talk about it too much.

Camera loaded with amazing photos, tales of people met, places seen and dangers overcome fill you, as you sit comfortable in the knowledge that you have something very special to offer now that you are home again and with friends. There is a fine point between simply saying that the travel was great and being a travel bore. Even sitting with another traveller it can become a competition trading the most beautiful, the most ugly, the highest, longest and most dangerous, oh and of course the oldest. Comparing notes on outlandish activities you would not do at home, and the sensuality of travelling is not wise, its easy to become a travel bore.

How much people really want to know you have to gauge. How many times people say would love to see your photos, but still they are unseen by all but you, except for one with a fabulous beach which is all they seem to want to see. You wonder why, you are slightly hurt. You have the wonders of the world to lay at your audience’s feet, but somehow they dont really want to know. “They are envious” you whisper to yourself, “they don’t care, they don’t understand”, but in truth they know that if you start you will never stop, and they will have nothing to say because for them such things are abstract compared to the appalling weather we have been having lately. You can hope that one day they will come to you and say “tell me all about Timbuctu” and then you can expound, but in truth they just want to know where you were and whether you enjoyed it. You are safe returned, that is enough. To hear the rest would be unsettling. So here is an ode to the travel bore!

The Traveled Man

SOMETIMES I wish the railroads all were torn out,

The ships all sunk among the coral strands.

I am so very weary, yea, so worn out,

With tales of those who visit foreign lands.

When asked to dine, to meet these traveled people,

My soup seems brewed from cemetery bones.

The fish grows cold on some cathedral steeple,

I miss two courses while I stare at thrones.

I’m forced to leave my salad quite untasted,

Some musty, moldy temple to explore.

The ices, fruit and coffee all are wasted

While into realms of ancient art I soar.

I’d rather take my chance of life and reason,

If in a den of roaring lions hurled

Than for a single year, ay, for one season,

To dwell with folks who’d traveled round the world.

So patronizing are they, so oppressive,

With pity for the ones who stay at home,

So mighty is their knowledge, so aggressive,

I ofttimes wish they had not ceased to roam.

They loathe the new, they quite detest the present;

They revel in a pre-Columbian morn;

Just dare to say America is pleasant,

And die beneath the glances of their scorn.

They are increasing at a rate alarming,

Go where I will, the traveled man is there.

And now I think that rustic wholly charming

Who has not strayed beyond his meadows fair.

 

Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1896