Travelling – Malawi

 

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Malawi sits at the southern end of the rift valley, its lake that runs the length of the country, 580 kms in length, its prime feature. It’s a poor country, in 2015 the poorest in the world and to give you an idea of what that means for a country of 16m people, the per capita GDP of the states in 2015 was $51000.00, that of the UK $41000.00 and that of Malawi a mere $494.00. That is poor. Chances are the computers we use cost more than that.

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It is a landlocked country with few raw materials in exploitable quantities, its main export being tobacco, and the huge bulk of that economy is in agriculture. The country’s existence is an accident of history, a result of the European imperial growth of the 19th century, its culture unique but influenced by Zambia, Mozambique an Tanzania which surround it. It has only ever been poor.

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Having listed all that gloom, it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful countries in Africa. The grasslands of the 2000ft Nyika plateau with its wildlife and unique flora, to the valleys and mountians of Zomba and Mulanje, and the lake itself, the centrepiece, long, freshwater and more than 1000 species of fish. It’s a place where a safari is really wild and very exciting.

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Malawi calls itself the “warm heart of Africa” and it is. Its people are renowned for their friendliness, tolerance, and acceptance. Despite all the tribulations the country has suffered in its history, politics, floods, HIV, its people are proud and feel in themselves a uniqueness which makes the country special. Poverty and pride are not mutually excusive. Anyone who really wants to see, feel, hear and experience sub Saharan Africa at its most beautiful and most African, loves Malawi.

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I need to declare in interest here in that I was born there, my parents both working there, that country and indeed Africa are in my blood as they say. Life was not comfortable, all water had to be boiled before drinking, occasional electricity in the early days, malaria and the health risks of the tropics, but the sense of freedom and space and the desire to learn were bred for me there. The beauty of nature and the people teaching so much. The contrasts for mw in Europe were enormous, I found the sight of people locking their doors to go out very, very weird indeed. The last time I visited I arrived at Lilongwe airport, the immigration officer looked at my passport, saw that I was born in Zomba Malawi, smiled, and said “Welcome Home”! It was so good to be back.

What is art?

 

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I was reading a blog about art today which started discussing the perennial question “what is art?” That question is a recipe for a looooong inconclusive discussion in which we can drain all our resources of intellectual savoir faire, as will all the others in the discussion, and end up hours later none the wiser.

Anyone who travels will visit great works of art in one form or another, The Mona Lisa, great galleries of the world, cathedrals that contain artistic masterpieces in carvings, frescos, or just the architecture. We will visit strange lands where the indigenous art is part of our journey and will be part of the enriching experience.

But in the same way that it is not good to talk about politics or religion at dinner parties since it is a recipe for a disastrous evening, so conversations about art can have that same addictive fate even when the discussion is in one’s own head. In the end it is often about perspective, we see something in a gallery or building and we know its art because we went there to see art. It is quite simple.

It all reminded me of a picture I had taken that I posted in my blog about Cape Town’s townships so I played around with the picture for a while and the three outcomes told a story. The first is just a street scene. The second a building with a mural on it, a splash of colour in the grey street. The third is what? A painting? A work of art? Should I go and ask the owner whether I can buy their wall? Should I introduce the person to a gallery? Is it a work of art or is it just a tiny splash of colour in a grey street? Or is it nothing but some person having a bit of fun with their house? Is it Banksy???

I leave it to you.

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

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

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.