The Hippie Trail

 

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I am soon setting out on another journey and while I sit and think of where I am going, what I want to do, who I want to meet and what I want from the trip, I always end up reminiscing about old trips I have made what they were to me and most of all think of the anecdotes that so often make the story of a journey.

In 1967 I left school and took a “gap year” before university and with a couple of friend bought a land rover and set out on what had become known as the hippie trail, the overland route to India from London. Sadly the globalised world has given rise to seemingly globalised war so it’s not possible, but an amazing adventure for a 17 year old.

Three and half months of living with 3 others under, inside or on top of a vehicle is a real “learning to live with other people experience”, not helped by the fact the only place you could get water was from an open tap somewhere, and if you wanted to wash you needed to find a hotel and persuade them to let you have a shower. No email, sms, or phones meant a post restante somewhere obscure every week or so, to write to say you were still alive and receive any news from home.

Having arrived we went our separate ways and I stayed in India for a while travelling around. What do I remember? Goa being just a huge stretch of sand with a few huts and some hippies playing guitar. Spending a week in an ashram with many others, under the guidance of a guru where in return for teaching in meditation we had to carry large amounts of earth to make a huge mound, the reason being that in a recent India/Pakistan war the guru had stood on a mound of earth with his arms in the air and as a result the Pakistani air force bombs had failed to demolish a nearby bridge, the bombs being diverted by his incantations. Being approached one day in Mumbai, Bombay then, and being offered a large amount of hashish at a discount price and when I declined being offered and western girl for the night in exchange for the shirt I was wearing. Declined both. Buying a sitar in old Delhi simply because it was beautiful and when I stood there confused not knowing what was bad or good, being helped by a western man who came over to me and turned out to be George Harrison from the Beatles, Lying on my bed in a cheap guest house under a fan, avoiding the pre monsoon heat and 90% humidity, listening to news of the death of Robert Kennedy and the on-going carnage of Vietnam. Registering with the authorities as an alcoholic so that I could buy a beer in a city that was dry using my alcoholic’s allowance. Sitting on Juhu beach watching the sunset. Travelling on the roof of a train since it was full and having a long stop at one station cause some had died of heat stroke. Seeing a Tiger in the wild. Having to ask all the time for gallons of water since the food was so spicy I could hardly eat. Sitting on the banks of the Ganges at Benares and watching cremations. Drinking water that was green and filled with chlorine pills since there wasn’t anything else. Learning the beauties of Indian music and dipping my toe into the extraordinary world of Indian spirituality. The endless crowds of people everywhere and the friendliness and curiosity of Indian people. And so it goes on.

Hope this trip will bring as many memories although since I am older and marginally wiser they will be different.

Travel – Architecture and Cities

 

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I love it that every city I visit is different. Sometimes people ask me what is my favourite city out of all those that I have visited, and of course that’s an impossible question, but I sometimes try to work it out.

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There is a big difference between cities that were built as cities and those that simply evolved over centuries, from settlements beside rivers or the sea, into those that exist today. There are the great cities of the world, London New York Paris etc, and then there are cities, none the less great to those who live there, but not one of the places that everyone feels they must go to.

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London is a city that has evolved over centuries from a small settlement in Roman times to the metropolis of today. The City of London is formalised architecture the result of the great fire in the 17th century which led to the city being laid out but for the rest it has grown and evolved over centuries resulting a whole mixture of styles uses and inhabitants, some would say a whole series of villages strung together.

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As a contrast the centre of St Petersburg was planned and built and preserved, despite wars and changes, such that even today you can get the feeling of being just a step from the world of Tolstoy and the characters of War and Peace. Sometimes that purity has an almost big chocolate box feel about it, almost too good to be true, but such a pleasure to explore, and a living cultural museum.

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Eastern cities reflect the rises and falls of their history and culture and have become a world of enormous contrasts, where ancient powerful histories have faded and been replaced by new modern recoveries of prosperity, interlaced with the growth of informal settlements resulting from the migration of poorer inhabitants from the countryside to the city in search of a better life.

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Some cities are defined by nature, the physical environment dictating the shape and limits of the city, and nature itself being the limiter of its expression. Then there are the new, purpose built, modern cities of the 21st century, pragmatic, functional but none the less appealing for the imagination of their design.

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Which are your favourites, well you pay your money and you take your choice but for me, despite my efforts to analyse, I don’t know, I still love them all because what ever they look like, however planned organised or random and chaotic they are, it’s the inhabitants that define them

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Dubai – Another World

 

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Dubai is a city where time has a number of dimensions. On the one hand a city of the future, on another an ancient part of the world where the old world can still be seen; it’s a great intersection for world travellers from different time zones and it is a world of migrant workers.

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The airport, which I often use as a hub on my travels, is fascinating in that you can sit in a café at what is 1 am my time having a midnight snack and talk to someone having breakfast and another having dinner, all passing through at that moment. It is like a self-contained timeless place.

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Best known in Dubai are obviously the modern parts, the world of tall buildings modern condo developments, the marina and the commercial area. The Burj Khalifa always reminds on of an “about to depart” rocket when seen from the ground.

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My favourite part to stay is Bur Dubai at the western side of the Creek. This is old Dubai, a world where the Creek still has boats that transport all over the Arab world and the East, a world with the Souks, old buildings and mosques. A trip up the Creek in a small boat is great to be able to see both the old and new Dubai.

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The souks are modernised but nonetheless places to bargain and haggle and although many have stalls which sell the same as the one next door there are some gems to be found there.

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Dubai is a world of migrant workers, many living in Bur Dubai who work hard to support themselves and their families back home. I met a Manager of a coffee house, an Afghan, who shared 2 rooms with four other people, rotating the beds between those who worked day shifts and those night shifts, sent all his money home to his family but did not know honestly how long he would be there nor when he would see that family again.

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You like shopping, you like Dubai, the malls ranging from those with lots of shops that have no prices, fronted by men in dark suits white shirts and an earpiece guarding the door, to the more familiar shops we see in other places. It’s a world where for some money is no object. A Italian man was so grateful for directions to the airport to catch a plane he was in danger of missing, that he rewarded me with a cashmere suit before racing off to the plane. He would not take no for an answer.

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It’s fascinating, it’s a place you can live the western beach life or if you dig around you find the old world and the extraordinary cosmopolitan culture that Dubai has become.

 

 

Water Water Everywhere and Not a drop to drink

 

 

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My title, from the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, talks of an ocean of salt water that surrounds his boat, but despite the forbidding description there is something that is fascinating about the image of being surrounded water itself, regardless of whether you can drink it or not. Even if they had loads of drinking water the image would still be powerful

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Humans have a true fascination with water. There are the obvious things that we need to drink it to survive, that our bodies are, to a large extent, made of water, that we wash with it, swim in it for relaxation and many will tell you its because that’s where humans came from in the first place. But that is all the practicalities of water.

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Travellers are no different, when we travel and explore we go and look for water. Millions of us go to the sea or the ocean to rest, we love to see waterfalls, we row on lakes or sail on the sea or take a barge down a canal, or even walk by the river. We sit and contemplate by a gurgling stream, we listen to the sounds of waves, we are in awe of the sheer power of water in waves or Tsunamis , water has a hold on us. We admire huge tracts of water and marvel at the place of water in religions we come across. We take delight in describing a mountain stream with the cool clear water of melted snow, and complain of polluted water, not just because we cant drink it or use it but because you just should not treat water in that fashion.

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If you travel to a country with a coast then at some stage you will visit that coast. if you are in a landlocked country we seek out rivers, streams, lakes, waterfalls even a pond in a park. Its as if we need a little fix of the sights and sounds of water to make our journey complete. We even go on cruises, sitting atop that very undrinkable water the poet wrote of as we feel at peace with the world while we sail on the water.

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We might travel to be near water, or alternatively visit some nondescript seaside town for no other reason than to have stood beside the sea and be able to say we saw this this or that sea or ocean. Somehow a journey without the visit to some water is not complete.

 

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The Layers in Cities.

 

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img_6969All great cities have their layers, the public and the hidden, the prosperous and the poor, the safe and the dangerous, the historical and the modern, the picture and the real place. If you start in the middle its usually all the good things and as you move away from the middle it gets more ordinary and less certain, and the harder it is to find what in fact is the real life of a place. img_6971Sometimes these distinctions can exist side by side, and it can make the city all the more exciting to see if you visit these “other” places and feel the contrasts between the city as presented to you the traveller and the city as it really is. img_6956

In Bangkok, within walking distance of the Royal Palace, the Democracy Monument and the Golden Mount is am area with its own canals buildings and life hidden away from the Bangkok as presented to us, but it is the real Bangkok for those who live there.

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The canals there are grey, the water ruined by the life beside it, electric cables droop into the water, people are packed together living their everyday lives. A small area of historic houses, not the mansions of old but small ancient buildings, still accommodate people and have shops and people living in them and you walk the narrowest of streets beside them. If you walk behind the Golden Mount, a major attraction, you can see the old ruined graves of people of times gone by and that adds some life to the monument that you wont find from the monument itself.

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Not only are these areas of cities fascinating of themselves but also they add a valuable counterpoint to the city as it is presented to us and helps get the real feeling of the inhabitants and the lives they live.

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You would not know it was there is you didn’t go and look around, so its always good just to wander a bit off the beaten track and find these little gems. They are not as pretty as the “sights” but they have their own impact on you.

 

 

Traveling and The Perspectives of Time and History.

 

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History is never far from our minds when we travel, the history of a place a society and that history is a measure of the time that elapses until we finally get there to see it. St Petersburg in Russia, an infinitely “historical” city, is a great place to feel that sense of history and time and explore it.

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The fortress of St Peter and St Paul set on an island in the Neva River gives lots of scope. The island contains the Peter and Paul Cathedral that is the burial place of Tsars from Peter 1st, Peter The Great, through to Nicholas 2nd who was reinterred there in the 1980s. 340 years of history in one room from the founder of the city to the last Tsar executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The fortress was also a Tsarist prison and for those imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. There is a morbid fascination in looking at a cell that housed someone later shot, but there is comfort in knowing that was 100 years ago, so it seems a long time and as such safe.

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Also on the island is a small space museum dedicated primarily to Russian rocket technology in the space race of the 1960s, with particular reference to the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961. So only some 40 years after the chaos of the revolution and the assassination of the Tsar here is a celebration of putting the first human in space, a tiny period of time in historical terms, for such an enormous change.

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Not being technologically minded and being born before technology, it looks, even to my unpractised eye rather primitive. You can see from the space suits that these were physically small men strapped into what looks like something resembling a modern day baby’s car seat, blasted into space in a solid sphere with virtually no control and returned to earth safely. Now only 50 years later we carry phones that are far far more technologically sophisticated than those machines.

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Elsewhere in the city is the Museum of the Blockade, the 900 days siege of Leningrad as it was then, in the 2nd world war from 1941 to 1944. During that terrible siege people faced famine, and you can see in a glass case a sample of the daily ration distributed to citizens at one stage in the siege. For us there is safety in the 70 years that have elapsed which separate us from that horrific time, but then we realise that it all took place only 20 years before the same country put the first man in space, a blink of the eye.

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Time seems distorted by our perceptions of what is fearful and what is admirable

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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

The Reincarnation of the Quagga.

 

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Quagga is the name for a now extinct species similar to the plains Zebra that became extinct in the 19th century. It was found in large numbers in what is now South Africa. Quagga is the Khoi Khoi name for Zebra, the Khoi Khoi being the inhabitants of the southern areas of South Africa originally.

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When settlers came to South Africa in the 17th century the Quagga were hunted in large numbers such that they became extinct in the wild in 1878 and in captivity in 1883. The Quagga had diverged from the Plains Zebra as a species some 250000 years ago.

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In the 1950s the idea was raised that with careful cross breeding of the Plains Zebra it might be possible to recreate the Quagga, although this idea was met with little interest since it was thought that the Quagga and Plains Zebra were unrelated as a species.

 

 

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However in the 1980s, by means of DNA sampling of the skins that remained and that of preserved Quaggas from museums, it came accepted that the species were related and the project to recreate the Quagga coomenced, known as The Quagga Project and based around Cape Town.

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The process is known as “breeding back” and is intended to create the striping patterns of the Quagga from careful breeding, since the technology for cloning using recovered dna does not yet exist, and as such the new off spring look like the Quagga but are genetically different.

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These offspring are known as Rau Quagga, to differentiate them from the Quagga and the Zebra, named after Reinhold Rau who initiated the project. The process has produced a number of generations of offspring and these are beginning to show the markings of the Quagga as it was. This represents a fascinating way to try to rectify some of the wrongs of man to the natural world.

 

Travel- A journey into history and time.

 

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It is said that history is a symphony of echoes. Einstein’s equation says that time is like a river that speeds up meanders and slows down. When we travel we come across those two concepts combined and receive some surprising answers. Different places give us a different perspective of what time means in the context of the places we discover and their history.

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Table Mountain in Cape Town, is the core of the city, the city sits beneath it as if in a basket. The mountain doesn’t have any forbidding presence, it is is a comfort, a real everyday presence that give reassurance and motivation to the city. Not for nothing are Capetonians known by some as the “mountianhuggers”. The cloud formations that fall from it at evening are affectionately known as the table cloth. Table Mountain is here now and today, it does not occur to anyone that it is history and that its origins are 300 million years old.

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The Arenal volcano, in Costa Rica, is a real live volcano and the sense of time in that piece of nature, and its history, tend to be measured by the last time there was an eruption, 1968. The excitement of a real life volcano might induce some of us to wish it was more recent. 48 years is the sense of history and time that many create around it. But the real history is that it has been erupting for 7000 years. Time has shrunk.

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The city of London is a place where the past and the present have melded together with history to live in the present. The church of All Hallows by the Tower dates back to 675 and is still a church today where people worship. Time there is a history lesson nothing more. London is filled with old places still used sitting alongside the most modern places that befit one of the great cities of the world.

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At the other end of the spectrum is the ancient kingdom of Angkor and the ruins of its various temples, dating back to 11th century and now simply a place of ghosts, (and tourists), a place where nature has imposed itself in the intervening years and taken back what belonged to it originally in some places. We learn the history, but don’t live it and we marvel that such things could exist nearly 1000 years ago. There, time is very real and not in any way compromised.

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Finally the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, in that country, are as old as Angkor but there is a big difference. In truth no one is compltely certain as to who built Great Zimbabwe. The African oral tradition of history has allowed parts of that history to disappear in the telling of it, and so we are left with a place that hangs in the air in time, with no real reference point as to why and when.

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Our perception of history and its echoes, bend and shape the sense of time in the places that we journey to.