Travelling – The past and the Future, of Life Love and Experience

 

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I was 16 years old when I first travelled alone. On a summer holiday in my school days I earned some money picking fruit, bought a ferry ticket and a train pass and travelled from the temperate (rainy) climate of Britain to the sun kissed shores of the Italian Riviera.

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I arrived at 3.30 in the afternoon, the day seemingly cooling, headed for the beach threw myself into the warm waters and stayed there till dusk spending the next day and a half in bed with sunburn. I was cared for by the lady who owned the pensione I had found, being the cheapest in the place and one that served huge breakfast being the major meal for the day in my impoverished condition. She was the archetypal Italian Mama kind but serious gentle but capable. A 19-year-old girl of outstanding mediterranean beauty who was working there made it clear that she was not interested in 16 year olds, as I lay there groaning theatrically.

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Having recovered I made my way the next night to a piazza in the town and sat at a table in the square sipping a beer and people watching, a habit that was to become one of my favourite travelling pastimes. Looking around the buildings surrounding the square I saw a beautiful girl looking down from a balcony overlooking the square. Leaning on her arms on the balcony rail, the sight of those dark eyes, lustrous black hair and half smile was the incarntaion of perfection. Having exchange glances and smiles and being determined to bring this Romeo and Juliette moment to fruition, I was unfortunately unable to get past her Mother in my quest for the perfect love, despite my very best efforts and using every ounce of my youthful charm, a Mother intent on protecting her daughter from crazy foreigners.

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Still, onwards and upwards was the cry and the journey became a rich mixture of sun, food, wine, and above all people, people I had never dreamt to meet but who were there in the traveller’s road, waiting to share the new experiences of life as people do with travellers. Italian food, the pace of life, its colours, rich and bright, the variety of culture, the acceptance of things new, and a Canadian girl made it truly memorable, a keystone in the wall of my travelling life

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I sometimes wonder should I go back there. What for I ask myself, the players in this little scene are all gone to other places and other lives. Why does it interest me to go back? Those significant moments would not be significant now, I know too much, but the richness of the experience, the novelty, the people, the sights sounds scents and flavours of that concentrated moment in life, that’s what I want to find I suppose. But I know it wont be there, and I also know that those senses and emotions I will definitely find on my next journey to somewhere new, a place I have never been and a new whole rich tapestry of people and experiences that I never dream will happen. That’s where I will find it again.

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“And if I could call back all those days of yesteryear,

I would never grow old and I’d never be poor,

But darling’, those days are gone.

Stop dreaming

And live on in the future….”

 

Van Morrison

The Life Inside Flowers

 

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No matter where you travel in the world there are flowers. Their colours textures brilliance and contrasts are different but nature delivers flowers everywhere. They grow on trees, bushes, from the ground and even in the sea but they are ever present and add to the memories of a place and its flavour.

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What has always fascinated me is what happens inside the flower, at its root, where nature creates the flower, because inside there is a whole world of activity that goes on in the life cycle of the life of a flower, and some of the most beautiful parts of a flower are those that we don’t see close up. They add to the picture but they are not completely visible

 

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That inner world has perfect shapes, bugs and microbes, contrasts of colours and shades which together create the perfection of a flower. Its as if you can see the mechanics, the motor, the engine room the beating heart of the creation.

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The varieties in different places in the world are extraordinary and even flowers we see every day and perhaps take for granted, have that hidden life that is so fascinating.

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If you see a beautiful flower that inspires you its worth taking a look really close up and see what is at home and what is happening inside. Flowers are conditioned by their environment but it does not matter if you look in a garden or a park or the other side of the world, nature is at work.

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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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Travels and Photographs

 

 

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The great photographer Henri Cartier Bresson said that “Your first 10000 photographs are the worst” a somewhat daunting prospect, and I have never counted! I would not presume to think of myself as a photographer but I do like to take photographs and have accumulated many over time of myriad people and places.

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I take photos of my travels, download them on to my computer and leave them there, the memories images and emotions of my travels still fresh in my mind. Then much later, feeling curious and often nostalgic I revisit them and my eyes wander through those moments in time and places that the camera has captured to preserve for my reminiscences.

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I find a whole array of different reflections in the pictures, formal ones of places, buildings, streets, squares, architecture, walls, history, the things that make a place what it is, the structure and outline of a society or place and its history. Then people, ones that I have seen, some whom I have met, others who are just passing through a scene at the moment the shutter clicks. Then there are those that create the atmosphere of the place, the light, the colours, the pace of life and its daily round.

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These pictures remind me of the place, they don’t stir the emotions so much as remind me, they are the diary of a place, the narrative of a place, they are the place rather than the experience of being there.

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I find that the photos that stir the emotions are the odd ones, the quizzical ones, and the ones that capture a moment rather than a place. The ones that have flavour, that set the senses alive A set of footprints in the sand of a pristine beach, a monk sipping a drink through a straw, a tree growing out of a building the intricacy of a piece of some art that tells a mystical story, a chicken chained to a fence. Those ones tell a story beyond the picture itself they stirs the emotions about my experiences and about what gives the lifeblood to journeys, the ones that make you smile, and recover the feelings that accompanied your journey.

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Cartier Bresson also referred to the camera as being “ a sketch book an instrument of spontaneity” and that’s very true. Out of the thousands of pictures those are the ones I am sure I will keep revisiting forever.

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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

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?

Village Life – Philippines

 

 

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On the way to the Maquinit hot springs in the hills above Coron at Palawan, in the Philippines, the road winds up and down through hills and around bends in the road that suddenly give vistas of the blue sea below. The road is dotted with villages, each going about its daily life, in the world around the tourists and travellers that come to these islands.

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On the lower slopes is a fishing village with boats moored alongside jetties in front of simple houses, and the village straddles the road into the hills. When you travel its easy to get divorced from the simple fact that the places you travel to are not just destinations, and the world does not exist just to stimulate the traveller but in fact the opposite is true.

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Houses abut the sea with boats parked outside like cars. A man paddling across the bay in a canoe is carrying things not just taking people for an outing; the small houses are deserted waiting for people to return from their daily chores.

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A man sits outside his small shop waiting for customers, and when asked for permission to take a picture he smiles and straightens himself, because there is pride and enterprise there, not just a job. By the water small fish lie drying in the sun, the results of the morning’s catch and boatmen paint and repair their boats.

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A restaurant made almost entirely of bamboo does good trade in the middle of the day, the atmosphere of being in something entirely mad of bamboo being fascinating, but to the people there its just as it is.The market is filled with people searching the displays of fish and vegetables each person with a particular mission.

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You are just passing through but that snapshot of a daily life is a counterbalance to the traveller’s objectives of islands, sunsets, food and relaxation. The experience adds flavour and colour to the journey, and the people you visit stop for a moment to talk to someone new, before returning to the routines of daily life.

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As travelling and tourism grows and the boundaries between tourism and everyday life blur, the village and its life adds some meaning to the surroundings

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Walking Intramuros – Manila.

 

 

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I love walking in cities, there is no better way of getting to feel, the atmosphere, pace, culture and senses of a city than to walk its streets and interact with the people and places you see. Manila is considered to be the most densely populated city on earth, bisected by the Pasig River, which flows into manila Bay. One of the best parts of the city to walk is Intramuros, the site of the original Spanish occupation of Manila. Intramuros sits alongside the banks of the river so that is a good place to move onto.

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Literally Intramuros means within the walls, the walls having been built as defensive walls by the Spanish beginning in the 16th century, and the community within the walls is a vibrant, alive one, mixing the traditional Spanish architecture and history, with universities, Manila Cathedral and Fort Santiago, as well as a hive of streets combining old Spanish buildings and street signs, with the densely packed urban life of Manila.

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The area was badly damaged at the end of the second world war during the capture of Manila from the Japanese, but restoration work has recreated the ambiance of the place.

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Wander through the streets and admire the old buildings and their Spanish streets names, turn a corner and come into rows of small shops, cramped buildings and alley ways, which is the modern poorer Manila. In a street is a chicken chained to a fence alone, standing on the pavement, turn another corner and find a shop that makes bicycles with the frame made of bamboo, the working parts recycled from the remains of discarded bikes, eco sound and ideal for sale to poorer parts of the world.

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Everywhere is colour and variety, these small crowded buildings festooned with clothes, washing or endless varieties of items, contrasting with the traditional gray walls of Spanish style classic architecture.

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Everywhere you will be offered a tricycle ride and guide to show you Intramuros, but honestly they are way over priced and anyway a walk through this variety is infinitely preferable.

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For the historically minded Manila Cathedral, the Church of St Augustin and the famous Fort Santiago are there all within walking distance. Stop and watch the world go by in one of the many restaurants and sample some great Filipino food. At the end of it you feel good and awash with the sounds sights and sensations.

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Moscow Choices.

 

 

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Moscow is a multi trip city, its big, steeped in history, and lots going on, but there are some places that warrant a definite visit.

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The Tretyakov Gallery, which is housed in a fascinating building, is a State gallery that houses some 130000 Russian paintings. It dates back to the 19th century although the main building that houses it is early 20th century. The history of Russian painting is there and it is a gallery designed in a way that you can walk and look without other people imposing.

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Red Square is well known to all, as is the façade of the Kremlin in Red Square, but a visit inside the Kremlin is a discovery of a varied and fascinating world of architecture and churches and gardens. It is a structure that conjures dark and forbidding images in our minds but those are wrong images. The forbidding façade of the Kremlin doesn’t do justice to what is inside.

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Outside the kremlin can be found the Tomb if the Unknown Soldier. Many cities have such memorials but what is unique about this one is sadly the numbers of soldiers it commemorates who died in Second World War nearly 10000000. That is a number hard to get ones head round and far more than any other nation that fought in the war, it’s the equivalent of roughly the entire population of greater London.

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That sad statistic takes me on to the final place in this piece the Museum of The Great Patriotic War. Being interested in history I have seen war museums in various countries but this one is the most inspiring I think. The museum is set in Victory Park and the museum itself is 14000 sq. metres of exhibition which extraordinary fascinating exhibits and it is very a very moving, experience especially when you come onto another terrible statistic, that over twenty million civilians and soldiers died. It teaches you to understand just how much that terrible period is part of the life around you and inside its people.

 

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Moscow is a big place in a huge country, but these ideas will give some sense of it today and historically.

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