Joining the Pilgrims – Part 1

 

Located in the state of Gujarat in the west of India, Junagadh was a pilgrim town with a difference.

A few kilometres outside of town, on top of a high ridge, were famous temples.

But to reach the temples, the pilgrim had to climb stone steps: 10, 000 of them.

That was a lot of steps.

I didn’t have a problem with the idea of ascending all those steps. A pilgrimage, as far as I was concerned, wasn’t meant to be easy. My conviction on this point emerged after previous visits to the famous pilgrim towns on the coast of Gujarat: Dwarka and Somnath.

In Dwarka and Somnath there were temples which were famous all over India and which every year were visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims – and their number was increasing rapidly. It was in these sacred towns that I got to see the contemporary Hindu pilgrimage industry first hand.  The pilgrims came in luxury coaches or cars, stayed in luxury hotels, dined out and bought souvenirs – and in between visited the temples. They were a part of a corporate pilgrimage industry.

Vendors did a brisk trade selling trinkets and souvenirs and in the temples, the priests had thoughtfully installed ATM’s to facilitate the donation cash flow.  The spirit of consumerism had scored a complete triumph in India – supposedly a ‘spiritual’ land. 

At the outskirts of Dwarka and Somnath, armies of peons worked like ants to build new luxury hotels and kitsch parks full of statues, avenues, ponds, swings and rides.

The Holy Site converted into a theme park.

In the past, pilgrims who went to sacred towns like Dwarka and Somnath had to endure great hardships to get there. More than a few of them would have perished on the way.

Of course, climbing ten thousand steps wasn’t the same as experiencing the ancient pilgrim’s uncertain, primordial world, but it did at least put more emphasis on the notion of the pilgrimage involving physical effort; of the means of getting to the end destination being at least as important as the end destination itself…….. 

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Evening Shadows

 

I must have been 5 or 6 the first time I saw the painting ‘Evening Shadows’ at the South Australian Art Gallery.

I didn´t like it and for a good reason. 

I was with my grandfather from my mother´s side.

Karl Wurfel was a devout Christian of the Old Testament kind. His god was a stern disciplinarian and a hard task master. He thought nothing of beating a young kid with a length of cane. I had experienced that and I hated him.

Why my mother ever left me with he and his neurotic wife was a mystery. She knew what her father was like. Karl had regularly beaten her and her sister. Then again, she was suffering from undiagnosed depression and making a bad job of caring for me and my younger sister.

Thankfully my relationship with the Wurfels didn’t last long because my father, who was in the Air Force, was posted out of Adelaide.

So there I was standing next to that tyrant looking up at ‘Evening Shadows’.

What did grandfather see in that painting?

He must have seen something because at one point, he seemed to be in a trance……

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Palermo Part 2

 

He started on it not me.

Organised crime.  

It caught my attention alright. I had an interest in the subject but had assumed that I would never meet an Italian with whom I could discuss it.

Now on my last hours in Italy there he was before me.

A stranger sitting at the same table as me one morning in the dining room of a small hotel near the centre of Palermo.

And as we made small talk and I found out that he spoke such good English because he was born in the U.S. – and furthermore, was an accountant, I knew then that this was the opportunity I’d been waiting for ……

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Palermo Part 1

After 5 weeks of travelling in Southern Italy, I ended my trip in Palermo, Sicily, where I was due to get on a flight to Rotterdam. On arriving there, I wandered from the bus station down a busy road, looking for a place to stay the night. Most of the hotels were booked out. I finally found a small hotel in a narrow side lane off the main road.

I didn´t know anything about Palermo and it didn´t matter; it was a stop on the way to the airport. But Palermo turned out to be far more than that.

It was memorable experience – and a quintessential Italian experience. 

And it all happened within 24 hours………..

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Sore Trouble

 

It’s 1897.

 We are in the south of Egypt.  

 There are three contingents of soldiers: Egyptian, Sudanese and British.

The Egyptian and Sudanese armies have been trained by British military instructors and are being led by British officers.

 We are in the heyday of The Empire, which is living on borrowed time. Come the 20th century and it will crumble before the tumult and upheaval of two world wars, a Great Depression, and two major revolutions.

But right now, in 1897, The Empire is in its full glory. No power on earth can defeat it.

Or so it seems…..

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