Travel: Why I Don’t do Churches Any More

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Our walking tour moved from the white-hot of midday sun into the cool dimness of the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca, Tuscany.  Our tour guide was a young woman, who knew far too much history for her own good and wanted ardently to share it with the world.

Her voice now barely a whisper, detailed the faded frescos and the 12th century marble baptismal font as we softly padded our way through the side chapels.

She waited patiently in the side chapel of Saint Zita until the last of the stragglers were present.  There was renewed determination as she spoke of the artifacts and paintings.

We had been walking and ingesting Lucca for over three hours. The majority of us were simply pleased to sit, pushing shoes off our sore feet as we sought the coolness of the marble floor.  Our guide’s history lesson was overwhelming, ticking off the centuries while our thoughts fantasized on a coffee and shopping break.

She sensed she had lost us but then she played her ‘Saint Zita’ trump card.

Purposely she stepped away from the front of the altar and with a gesture of a game show host she indicated the brightly lit glass sarcophagus behind her.

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Where the rest of the church was dim illuminated only by rose-red pools of light or iron stand banks of flickering candles, the glass case was rudely lit, neon bright like a cheap side-show.

Beneath the glass, on a bed of brocade lay the mummified remains of an ancient, once, woman, now only a leather black corpse dressed in white with a circlet of dusty plastic flowers in her thin wispy red hair.

And with that my weakened enthusiasm for absorbing yet another church was dealt a fatal blow.

Sleuthing around a church and attempting to retain a potted knowledge of patrons, saints and bishops while viewing multiples of stained glass windows, hand-carved lecterns, alabaster Madonnas and child is not for me and irrefutably, not some horror movie mummified relic in a glass case. (Forgive me Saint Zita).

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But it is in Gaudi’s Cathedral Sagrada Familia in Barcelona that I, and millions of other visitors, are rewarded with a sense of the majesty of a spiritual connection.

Is it because Gaudi’s imaginative architecture compares so pleasurably to most European medieval gothic-buttressed church naves? Those darkened hallows have a heaviness that stifles whereas Gaudi’s temple is an augury of towering space, light and intricate pinnacles that triggers one to explore it with the spiritual innocence of a child. May be Gaudi simply paid heed to the biblical quote  ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’

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Mindfulness in Ho Chi Minh

IMG_7861Ho Chi Minh, (Saigon as it was) is a destination where I could sense my neurons lighting up with alacrity as I observed the city street scenes embracing a culture so different from Australia with its sights, smell and sounds of Asia teasing you at every juncture.

We had visited Vietnam once before, briefly on a cruise with day visits to Ho Chin Minh and Halong Bay, which was simply not enough time appreciate the magic of Vietnam. But enough time, with two hour coach rides into and out of Ho Chin Minh, to be amazed at the Vietnamese dominance and culture of the motor scooter.

The country boasts 30 million motorbikes/scooters equating to 95% of all registered road vehicles. A first time visit to ‘Nam spins you out of our established idea of motorbike usage. Forget Australia’s sights; a drove of newly bronzed backpackers nervously steering their scooters along coast roads hanging for the promise of a cold drink at the beach, men with red bandannas and leather chaps on gleaming Harley Davidson’s ready to throttle up the Great Ocean Road or the local postie wheeling into your drive. On the Vietnamese pot-holed roads you will more than likely see Momma and three small children perched precariously behind Poppa as he weaves his way in and out of the traffic. Here too you will see all manner, shape and size of commercial commodities laced to the frame of a Suzuki with the helmeted driver barely able to see the road in front.images-3

In Ho Chin Minh city, the bikes in all weathers create orchestrated chaos, there does not seem to be any road rules at all. Scooters flow into, weave around pedestrians and cut across the line of traffic without signals or sense of fear. While we did not see any accidents the road fatalities are understandably high in Vietnam with 1200 deaths a year. In Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) you can only be amazed that there are not more accidents as the city’s 3.1 million motorbikes, like buzzing ants, fill the roads to overflowing.

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Crossing city roads was my senior equivalent of a bungee jump. My guide said walk slowly and steadily across the stream of traffic, don’t stop don’t step back just slow and steady.’ But wait there is a crossing,’ I say ‘why don’t we cross there?’ My guide smiled Yes but the same rules apply as traffic does not stop or slow. A road-crossing phobic can do two things in Ho Chi Minh – stay in the hotel for the entire time and miss out on the bounty of life of Saigon or have faith in a different culture and trust that these bikies know what they are doing. Being one of the most fearful pedestrian when it comes to crossing the road I say proudly I did it, not once but several times and came away with nary a scratch or a bump.

We took a fascinating half-day tour in Ho Chi Minh visiting the Reunification Palace, Saigon Opera House, Notre Dame, Ben Thanh Markets and the War Remnant Museum. Mia, our tour guide of Charms of Indochina Travel Company gave breath and life to the history of Vietnam. No mean feat on a hot and monsoonal day when ones mind is sluggish and body sapped with sweat. Finally we asked if she rode a motor scooter in the city. Of course, she said. ‘But the traffic,’ we say ‘is so horrendous how to do you do it?’ It is about being aware, being conscious of the intention of riders around you and allowing their progress as they allow yours. Being mindful is the key.

 Very Zen I think as I cross the road to my shiny hotel, walking steadily beaming out my mind intention of simply getting to the other side.

 

What’s Not to Worship?

We moved from the white-hot of midday sun into the cool dimness of the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca.  Our Italian tour guide was a young woman, who knew far too much history for her own good and wanted desperately to share it with the world.   Her voice now barely a whisper detailed the faded frescos and the 12 century marble baptismal font as we quietly wound our way through the side chapels.

She waited patiently in the side chapel of St. Zita until all the group were present.  There was renewed determination as she spoke of the artifacts and paintings.  We had been walking and ingesting Lucca for over three hours. The majority of were simply pleased to sit, pushing shoes off our sore feet as we sought the coolness of the marble floor.  Our guide’s history lesson was overwhelming, ticking off the centuries  while our thoughts fantasized on  a coffee and shopping break.  She sensed she had lost us but then she played her Saint Zita trump card. Deliberately she stepped away from the front of the altar, with a cliché gesture of game show host she indicated the brightly lit glass sarcophagus behind her.   Where the rest of the church was dim illuminated only by rose-red pools of light or iron stand banks of flickering candles, the glass case was rudely lit, neon bright like a cheap side show.  There  on a bed of brocade was the mummified remains of an ancient, once, woman, now only a  leather black corpse dressed in white with a circlet of dusty plastic flowers in her thin wispy red hair. The guide  had our attention. And with that my weakened enthusiasm for absorbing yet another church or monument was dealt a fatal blow.

IMGP1605The only iconic place of worship –  that I have experienced –  that I found uplifting  and gave a sense of spiritual freedom was Gaudi’s Cathedral Sagrada Familia.  Is it because of Gaudi’s  imaginative architecture compared to predictable medieval or gothic  buttressed church naves? Those darkened hallows have a heaviness that dampens my spirits whereas  Gaudi’s cathedral is a lightness of towering space that triggers the imagination to explore it with the spiritual innocence of a  child. May be Gaudi paid heed to the biblical quote  ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’

I love history but sleuthing around a church attempting to retain  a potted knowledge of patrons, saints and bishops while viewing the stained glass windows, a hand-carved lectern from a single oak tree, an alabaster madonna and child is not for me and irrefutably not some horror movie mummified relic in a glass case.

To me the natural elements of earth, sea and sky provide my altar for a conversation with a higher source. What about you?

Friday Tips – Travel Writing

Grand Palace Bangkok
Grand Palace Bangkok

What is common to both good fiction and travel writing?  Read Benji Lanyado, Guardian writer and blogger’s valuable advice on  what should be every new writer’s mantra Show Don’t Tell.

‘My golden rule when writing a piece is to include as much visual description as possible. It’s easy to presume a lot, but your readers don’t know what you’ve seen. So explain it as vividly as possible. Don’t ever describe something as “characterful” or “beautiful” – this doesn’t mean anything to anybody but you. Describe things as if you were explaining them to a blind person. To say a building is “old” isn’t good enough; explain the colours, the peeling stucco, the elaborate, angular finishes on windowsills, the cleaning lady in a faded blue smock who was leaning out of a second-storey window with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. There is a thin line between elaborate, colourful, evocative writing and pretentious tosh, but it’s better to lean towards the pretentious tosh side of the spectrum than to be dull and presumptuous.
’

Travel – Fun for all ages in Dubai

 The falcon was a distant blip in a sand gauzed blue sky. The afternoon sun in the desert was biting hot as we watched the falconer spin the feathered lure high.  The bird circled eyeing his prey, then folded his wings and dropped at missile speed to pluck the lure mid air. The demonstration was our introduction to one of Dubai’s most popular attractions – the Desert Safari.

This desert experience proved to be our family’s highlight in our five-day stay.  The roller coaster ride in the 4 x 4 vehicles as we surfed the sand dunes was wild. A bit pulse racing at times as we roared to the top of what looked a small mountain of desert sand only to drop safely over the other side. The children aged ten and eight years, particularly loved the camel rides. My daughter was at one with spiritual quietness of the desert starlit night and my husband and son-in-law could not fault feasting on barbeque lamb while watching an exotic belly dancer. Me, well I was imagining being scooped up by a handsome  Omar Sharif look alike and taken off to his Bedouin camp for a night of ,,,,,,,,,,,.  Ahhh, there is something about those Sheikhs in their white kanduras.

Four decades ago Dubai was a small fishing village. The towering landmarks now stand where once it was sand. It is a city on steroids growing daily, a vision of its engineering and architectural feats. Shopping malls and luxury resorts provide the landscape for the jewels in the Dubai crown.  The tallest man made building in the world the one hundred and sixty four floor Burj Khalifa that almost eclipses the awe of the iconic luxury hotel Burj Al Arab rising like a ship’s sail from the ocean. To this fantasy are the offshore artificial islands that can be seen clearly from space, The Palm Jumeirah and, still under construction, The World, a sand dredged archipelago of a map of the world.

IMG_4223We took a hop on, hop off bus tour on day one. The Big Bus Tour covers two routes, the city and the beach. If you do both it will take over four hours, without any stops. The open-air double-decker bus is air-conditioned on the lower deck and partially on the upper deck and provides complimentary earphones to plug into the excellent commentary as you tour.  The buses run every twenty minutes so it as a convenient way to experience the city sights and there was sufficient hop off attractions in our day to keep the children happy.  But if you know where you want to go the Dubai Metro is the more efficient way to travel. Its clean and cheap providing you don’t mind the long walks from the stations to the city attractions.

Water sports were high on the children’s list but time was too short to do justice to either of the legendary waterparks of Aquaventure Dubai at the Atlantis Palm Hotel or the Wild Wadi Waterpark.  Both parks’ competing to provide the ultimate watery thrills and spills.  Top white knuckle experience is the Leap of Faith ride where you can plummet the six stories high ride in less than a second before finding yourself zipping through the acrylic tunnel surrounded with sharks and rays, depositing you in yet another shark filled pool.  Both parks offer day passes and a generous variety of rides and wave pool experiences. Our young ones opted for the open ocean, their donut ride while pulled behind a speedboat seemed to fit their degree of thrill spill needs.

Atlantis The Palm offers double daily ticket deals so that you can visit the Lost Chambers Aquarium with its 65,000 marine animals but for us we chose to visit the Dubai Aquarium at Dubai Mall. The mega aquarium, equivalent in size to fifty soccer pitches has the world’s largest viewing panel onto the Mall. You freely watch the marine display glide past or you can pay to walk the acrylic shark tunnel eleven metres under water and experience the thrill and closeness of sharks as they glide over and around you.  Aquarium ticket options provide additional attractions with the underwater zoo, a ride in a glass bottom boat or for the scuba divers in the family an aquarium shark walk.

For shopalics there are multiple malls and souks but the Dubai Mall ticked all of our family boxes and the day spent there only scratched the surface of its attractions. Designer and luxury shops to explore, an incredible choice of high quality restaurants and cafés, it is Metro accessible and the children’s entertainment wishes are well and truly met. Late in the day we made our way through the Mall onto the restaurant fringed forecourt of the Burj Khalifa Lake to watch the Dubai Fountain performance, think of the famous dancing fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas and you have it.

KidZania on the second floor of Dubai Mall is a safe and fun haven for children between the ages of toddlers to sixteen years old. Parents can leave their children in the care of capable and qualified staff. The concept of KidZania is to offer children an opportunity to mimic the adult’s world. The centre is a kid’s size city with a hospital, TV station, shops and cafes where children can experience different jobs by role-playing. Fun of course but here they learn more about the world they live in.  Here little pilots fly planes, chefs make food, firemen slide down the pole and TV announcers speak to camera.

The Dubai Mall also has an ice rink but if that does not appeal, kids of all ages will love the Sega Republic the Japanese indoor theme park. The park offers cutting edge games of skill and adrenaline rush rides.  The park kept the men and the children happy for hours while my daughter and I window shopped our way round Galleries Lafayette, designer boutiques and Tiffany’s.

What a blessing if your trip coincides with a Friday, the beginning of the Emeriti weekend. You can join locals and expats for the legendary buffet brunches that offer guests the ultimate dining and wining experience. Most hotels stage these but if I were to choose it would be the glamorous Al Qasr.  The hotel is one of two that make up the Madinat Jumeriah resort. The hotels and its facilities resemble an ancient Arabian citadel. Enhance the Sinbad ambience by sailing in a traditional Abra as it glides through the resorts landscaped waterways and after brunch take a gentle walk through the lantern lit hallways of the Madiinat Souk to browse the range of fashion, jewellery and antique shops.

Scratch the surface of Dubai’s glitz and glamour and you find pure gold. We  enjoyed the attractions but all loved our brief insight to the Arabian culture. It is not cheap but boy it delivers.

Mary Atkins -2013