Travels with Stephen Part 2

 

Leaving the portal, we entered the monastery grounds.

There was no one about. The silence hung heavy in the air.  

An early morning sun glanced over the perimeter wall.

What was once a fortified monastery built in a time of war and inhabited by hundreds of monks was now more like a museum.  

There was a wide area of grass on our left, whitened with frost. On our right, there was a church with high turrets. We went over there and circumnavigated it slowly like two children making a new discovery.

In these precious moments of solitude, it was possible to reimagine the past and the generations of monks who had lived and died there over the last 5 centuries.

Then the silence was broken.

Someone yelled.

The sound echoed in the cold air.

It took us a while to identify where the yelling was coming from: in an alcove next to the wall was an old monk sitting in a chair basking in the early morning sun. Dressed in black, a grey beard and a walking stick. He motioned for us to go over there

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The Secret – Australia

Early in the morning of Friday August 25, my mother fell out of bed.

She was 88 years old and she was in frail health. She had lived in a high care nursing home for the last 8 years.

A member of the staff found her on the floor of her room (she had a necklace-beeper but true to form, refused to wear it) and called an ambulance. She was taken to the nearest hospital, where she was sedated and then x-rayed. The nursing home phoned my brother Dave. He was at work. He had a busy job as a senior accountant at British Aerospace. He was in a meeting and had his phone turned off. When he turned his phone on during a mid-morning coffee break, there were two missed calls.

He drove to the hospital, where a doctor told him that our mother had broken her hip. The doctor had quite a lot more to add:

‘The break is serious. A piece of her hip has entirely broken off. We can operate and pin her hip together. But this is a high-risk operation. Her heart is very weak, her kidneys are barely functioning, and she has a serious chest infection. If we go ahead with the operation, I would strongly advise you to call your siblings and ask them to visit her now. It might be the last time they see her. ‘

Was it an option not to operate? Dave asked.

Yes, it was an option. Then she would certainly die and it would be long and painful.

 

None of us – Dave, my sister Lyn or I – knew anything about our mother’s weak heart, failing kidneys or chest infection. Our mother was an obstinate woman. She had grown up during The Great Depression and the Second World War. She was a proud, stiff upper lip kind of person.

Dave was placed in a quandary. It was going to be a long day.

He phoned my sister Lyn, who was living in Melbourne and had a busy job managing a pet supply business. Her son was battling cancer. She had a lot on her mind.

Dave then tried to phone me. Anya and I were in Southern Queensland and, on that very day, out in the bush on a bike ride. We had a phone with us, but it was out of reach. Dave phoned a few times and then left a message. We didn’t get it until late that afternoon, when we arrived back at the caravan park where we were staying.

Dave and Lyn consented to the operation. It took place in the afternoon. My mother survived it and was then placed in recovery, where she drifted in and out of sleep. Dave was informed that he would be able to speak to her at around 7pm that night.

He went home. He needed a break. He had been sitting around in the hospital waiting-room all day and he was exhausted.

 

When Anya and I arrived back at our tent, the sun was nearing the horizon. We knew we had to move briskly. During the day it was in the low 20’s, but at nights, the temperature plummeted to a few degrees above zero. We took off our bike bags, locked the bikes, went to the amenities block, showered and then gathered up our pots and pans and bags and packets and head to the communal kitchen area. There were bench seats and tables, a fridge and microwave and hot plates. Whilst I was cooking a meal, Anya retrieved our phone and began checking it for incoming calls. She yelled out to me and irritated, I came over.

‘Your mother has had a fall and broken her hip and is in hospital.’

Ambush!

Anya took over the cooking and I phoned Dave and Lyn. Following that, I consumed my meal, barely conscious of what I ate. The arrangement was that when Dave went back to the hospital and spoke to our mother, he would phone me afterwards.

I waited. And waited. The cold moved in, relentless.

Anya and went to sit in our old car. It was warm there. The night sky was stunningly beautiful: a blaze of stars, some close, others far distant and forming fine gossamer clouds.

 

Dave drove back to the hospital at 7pm.

As he walked towards recovery, a doctor asked him to come into a separate room – where Dave was told that minutes before, our mother had died. Dave went to recovery, looked at our mother, held her hand, and cried.

Then he phoned me.

 

What a bizarre scene.

Sitting there in our old car on a cold clear night somewhere in a rural area of Southern Queensland, head spinning around and around: ‘my mum’s dead.’

No sleep that night. No sleep for many nights afterwards.

There was no grief involved. It was shock.

None of us had expected our mother to go out like this.

In the past, she had come close to dying on at least several occasions and she had invariably staged a dramatic recovery. Twice I had flown back from Europe to be next to her in what the doctors predicted were her last hours – and like the metaphorical Lazarus, she had defied the odds and bounced back.

She was a tough old bird. 

As Dave, Lyn and I often joked: ‘The old bugger will probably outlive us!’

Behind the joke, was a shared conviction that our mother would live for at least another five years.

But the old bugger confounded us all.

She died suddenly.

Puff! Gone!

 

On Friday night she died. Early on the Saturday morning, Anya and I packed up our tent and loaded our bikes on the rack and started the drive back to Adelaide. There were things to be done; mum’s belongings cleared out of her room, a funeral to be organised, probate begun etc. But most important of all: to be there with my brother and sister.

The drive to Adelaide was a long one, especially for us: 2000 kilometres.

We had departed Adelaide at the end of March and for 5 months had driven short distances – on an average, 2-3 hours – before stopping in a small town, setting up our tent, and spending at least a day or two, sometimes a week, doing long rides over unsealed back roads and tracks. In this incremental fashion, we had made our way to the south-east of South Australia, across the border into northern Victoria, up through the west of New South Wales and then into Southern Queensland.

Now we were confronted by something we had never done before: drive continuously, for hours on end, all day.

We organised it like this: each of us drove for a maximum of two hours before changing drivers. At each driver swap-over, we pulled over and got out and walked around for at least 15 minutes. There was a long stop for lunch.

We drove south, across the border into western N.S.W, before turning west and heading towards Broken Hill and from there south-west to the border of South Australia.

It was a trip the likes of which I had never been on before. We drove through desert, the heartland of a big, arid country. The horizon was like a line ruled across a page. Small hardy trees and stunted bushes basked under vast skies. Sometimes there were no trees, just a carpet of small leathery plants and stones. ‘The tyranny of distance’ was a familiar phrase, but we were confronted by the tyranny of space, a tyranny of Nothingness. Sometimes it was impressive, other times, monotonous. Sometimes I got the feeling we were on another planet. Driving across Saturn maybe.

During our stops, when we got out and walked around, a strong icy wind, blowing out of infinity, chilled us to the bone. The same country that during the long summer months was so hot it was like Hell on earth.

The road was a long straight shimmering line.

You had to watch that line. Keep your eyes peeled.

Road trains thundered past, mechanical monsters almost as high as they were long. Dead kangaroos lay strewn all over the line and you knew that if your concentration failed or you fell asleep, you would join them within the blink of an eye.

 

 

A day after arriving in Adelaide, Dave, Anya and I went to view my mother’s body.

Formal identification had to be made before it was released to the funeral director. We arrived at the entrance of a typical large and busy hospital to be met by a Chaplain. For a moment, I wondered why he was there. We were not religious and didn’t want a religious funeral. He was dressed in normal clothes; trousers, shirt and jumper. He could have been a cleaner except for the plastic ID card hanging around his neck. We stood around in the noisy hallway talking. We had to wait for the arrival of two police; they were required to officially register our identities and, that of my mother.

‘They’re always late’ the Chaplain said.

He was there apparently as a grief counsellor and not a representative of any particular faith. Evidently some people went to pieces when they viewed the body of a loved one.

He was a nice man, chatty, affable. We talked about grief. I explained to him that on my part, there was no grief. It was, rather, a sense of disorientation; of shock. Grief was something different. I remembered a man we had met on a caravan park in Victoria who had lost his teenage son in a motor bike accident; his stories about grief counselling, of being in and out of institutions; of days when he couldn’t get out of bed.

That was grief.

The police arrived; a young woman and a middle- aged man. I felt sorry for them having to do this job. Must have been boring. We walked upstairs, navigated our way passed nurses and doctors and orderlies, and entered a small, dark room, furnished with comfortable chairs, a lounge suite and lamps: bizarre in the context of a large hospital, where sterility, disinfectant and harsh light was the norm. At one end of the room was a closed door bearing the innocuous sounding sign ‘Viewing Room’. It seemed to take forever before the door was opened. We sat there in the lounge staring into space whilst the Chaplain chatted to the police.

I didn’t know how I would react on seeing my dead mother.

I had seen bodies many times in India.

But this was different.

This was my mother, a woman who had raised me and who had been an integral part of my life. Who I had loved, sometimes hated, often pitied; who had alternatively made me laugh, driven me to distraction, and on occasions, confided in me in a way she had never done with anyone else.

On seeing her lying there on a hospital stretcher, would I cry, lose my self -control, yell, faint, or rush out of the ‘viewing room’ in an emotional fluster?

It seemed unlikely. I never cried. But I wasn’t sure.

The fact was, the only reason I had accompanied Dave and Anya was because I thought I had to; they had told me that I didn’t have to come, but I was worried about looking weak. What kind of dumb macho was this? Why didn’t I stay back at Dave’s place? Lyn had refused to come along, why didn’t I follow her cue?

There he was Mr. Macho Man. Nervous as hell.

Shit! Open that bloody door and let’s get this over!

How long does it take to take a body out of a freezer?

 

The door opened. The three of us filed in.

A long sigh of relief went through me.

This wasn’t my mother. It was her body, but it wasn’t her. It looked like an Egyptian mummy with the cloth unwound. Or a corpse in India floating on a river.

This wasn’t my mother.

The face was like a macabre mask. The skull was covered in a thin, translucent layer of skin. The eyes were closed and sunk in their sockets. The mouth open and looked like a deep dark hole.

A week later, when she lay in a coffin in a chapel, she had been made up and was wearing clothes. Then she looked like a mannequin doll. But on this viewing, there was no pretension, no intervention by the make-believe industry.

My fears dissipated. I was free!

This wasn’t my mother.

The enigma of the life force had flown – where to?

Wars have been fought since time immemorial over the answer to that question. I didn’t have any answers and never would have.

 

We left the viewing room. Anya was crying (but she had been adamant that she wanted to take one last look at my mother). The Chaplain spoke comforting words to her. Dave stood with the police, filling in forms and testifying that the body in the adjoining room was our mother.

No it wasn’t!

That was my secret.

My mother had vanished into thin air. Flown away, like a night owl.

In the following days, a funeral director was consulted and preparations made for a ceremony.

I wrote the eulogy. That was my task: after all, older brother Pete was a ‘bit of a scribbler.’

 

See following blog: ‘Eulogy for My Mother’

https://serioustravelblog.com/2017/09/24/eulogy-for-my-mother/

 

‘Big Walk You’ – Part 2

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For a good 20 minutes, we drove down that road, dense forests either side of us.

The view was amazing.

Well, it was the same view we had seen close-hand during our frantic descent from the mountains, only now it was different because we had the luxury of sitting in the back of a car and looking at those forests as spectators. And when you saw it from that perspective, you could appreciate its sheer extent, the beauty of tall trees and autumn coloured leaves, seemingly endless.

This kind of wilderness – you didn’t see it anymore in Western Europe: the kind of wilderness which offered sanctuary to bears and wolves and packs of wild dogs.

 

As we descended, the forests receded and in places, there were fields. In one we saw a shepherd with a flock of sheep. Nearby was a rough low hut and smoky little fire.

Then a little way further, on our left, we saw them, a short way back from the road and near some tall trees: a big group of gypsies in two open, horse-drawn wagons. The men had long beards and the women were dressed in very colourful long dresses. The wagons were packed with people. Some of them were walking next to the wagons.

What were they doing there?

We tried to ask but got only: ‘gypsies!’

They looked like something out of a dream.

We had seen gypsies before in Romania, some of them living in houses, some of them begging, some of them on the move.

But this was bizarre: out here in this wilderness, in this cold.

 

At 7pm we came to a village.

The air was heavy with dust and smoke. In combination with the twilight, everything seemed other-worldly. Scenes rolled before my eyes, images which I could not believe I was seeing, which reminded me of travelling in India, not Europe.

There was a long unsealed road and on either side of it, small houses. Most of the houses consisted of weathered, vertical wood palings and long, sloping, red tile roofs; the roofs were warped and looked like a painting from the hand of Van Gogh (only without the colours). In some places, there were groups of people sitting on bench seats at the side of the road.

Then I noticed it: there were no cars. No cars on the road and no cars parked at the side of the road. No one could afford a car. Many people rode bikes. Others were on horse-drawn carts. Some of the people I saw were gypsies or of mixed heritage; others were Romanian.

In a field, I saw women wearing headscarves and woollen vests and long dresses raking piles of dead grass into heaps. In another field, I saw people scrabbling in the dirt to find potatoes, which they put in to an old sack.

We passed a small church and graveyard. Behind it was forest. There was no fence or wall around the church and graveyard. I watched a group of people carrying implements like rakes, spades and hoes, walk through the grave yard, passed the small headstones; death and dying was a part of village life. It was like a scene from medieval times.

We came to an intersection where there were several horse- drawn carts pulled up at the side of the road. There was a group of people standing in the middle of the intersection talking. The car edged slowly around them and a little later came to a halt because a shepherd was bringing his herd of cows down the street. We drove a bit further before having to stop for another herd of cows, this one far bigger.

 

With the flood of impressions which greeted me as we drove through that village, the physical exhaustion I felt after we first got into the car seemed to vanish.

All sorts of thoughts raced through my mind. I felt alive, excited, curious and at the same time, there were questions I was grappling with.

Approximately 50 kilometres away was the city of Brasov – where we had stayed only two days before. It had a beautiful old historic centre and it was one of Romania’s major tourist attractions. The busiest area was around the square and an adjoining street – closed-off to traffic – called Republika Street. On either side of Republika Street were elegant buildings constructed during the 19th century and early 20th century when Romania was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. At the street level of these buildings were upmarket shops, some of them orientated towards the tourists, but most of them towards the local middle class youth. Brasov was a university town and there were crowds of students among the tourists. In the front windows of these shops were slick images of sophisticated, cool people wearing the right clothing, the right jackets, the right watches, the right jewellery, the right perfume; you felt old walking along that street if you were over 25. The sons and daughters of the newly emerging Romanian urban middle class were the ones who had money to spend – much of it black. Here we were two days later driving over brutal roads passed villages where no one had a car, which in many ways were living in a time belonging to a distant past.

This was a country of compartmentalized worlds, involving not only rich and poor but also city and country, ethnic Romanians and gypsies, the legal economy and the illegal. It was a country of gross inequality and endemic corruption. There were enormous differences between different areas of society co-existing side by side. Somewhere in a part of my brain I was wrestling with the issue: would I want Romania to be Scandinavia? Would I want to level this society and thereby also remove its colour, its differences, it’s all too vivid contrasts? I suspected that there was an unequivocal connection here: poverty and culture, prosperity and sterility. I hoped I was wrong but I’d seen it before – many times.

As a progressive human being, I would want to level the entire world, to reduce the economic inequality within nations and between nations; to create a world society in which everyone, the poor and the rich, men and women, gays and trans genders, had equal opportunities in life. Ideals were precious to me. Yet as a traveller, honesty forced me to admit that the last thing I would want to do is turn the world to one big antiseptic ball park. As a traveller, the very last thing I wanted was to live in a world without differences, a world sterilised into a kind of decent mono-culture where everyone lived as a consumer. In the drive from the mountains down through that village, I felt a surge of exhilaration, of wonder, of intensity; my eyes feasted on the scenes outside the windows of that beaten up old Opel. Yet at the same time, I couldn’t help thinking about what I had seen in Republika Street only two days before: the ugly reality of some people, an arrogant elite, living the Western Dream and many others, in grinding poverty.

How many of the people in these villages would be worrying about their appearance, about what was fashionable and cool?

I could not resolve these contradictions – and so I gave up and just went along for the ride…….

 

After that village, came another.

By that time, night had fallen and it started raining.

This village was, in any case, somewhat more developed. There was a typical, blunt communist era apartment block, chipped and cracked. In the light of a street lamp it looked like a massive, gaunt, tombstone. Near the apartment block there were a few old communist era cars and, a few wrecks of cars. In unsealed side streets, I saw pools of water and rows of wood and tile houses with light glowing from their windows; they looked like lanterns. We drove through a town centre where there were a few small shops, a communist era statue of a hero, and an old, stately looking building hailing from the Austro-Hungarian times.

We crossed a railway line and finally reached a sealed road.

We told the driver to drop us there and we could hitch back to Baile Tusnad.

The driver said: ‘No…not possible…. we take you to Manpas Bai. There you get train to Baile Tusnad.’
Shortly after he said that, we realised that the road we had turned on to was not the road to Baile Tusnad. It was another road entirely. It was deserted. There was no traffic.

Once again, I ran the scenario through my mind about what would have happened if we hadn’t been picked up by these men. We would have walked all night, got to the road the following morning very much worse for wear – and then discovered that it wasn’t the road we wanted.

That we still had a hell of a long way to go – with no hope of a lift in sight.

 

In the dark and wet, the car drove up a hill, back and forth around sharp bends. There were forests all around us. The drive to the station at Manpas Bai seemed to take forever. It was a hell of a distance. The time ticked by.

At 8pm, we turned left down a pot- holed side street and there it was: the little railway station at Manpas Bai.  

Anya and I travelled often by train in Romania. It was far more reliable than the bus service (which is why hitch-hiking was so widespread in Romania).

Some of the train stations were big, like grand halls, with high ceilings and waiting rooms and upstairs lounges; they were relics from the communist era when few people had cars and most used the trains. Others, like the one at Manpas Bai, were very small, like the forgotten forward posts of a once great empire. Manpas Bai consisted of a rectangular, flat-topped, white-painted building; there were no platforms let alone sheltered platforms. A train arrived and you walked over there and literally, climbed aboard – quite an effort with a heavy rucksack.

The next train for Baile Tusnad left at 9 pm; we had a long wait ahead of us.

 

The trout fishermen made their way back to their car.

We insisted on giving them money – 150 lei or around 35 Euros. This was a large sum indeed for the locals. We were not in the habit of handing out this sort of tip but in this case, it was different. These men had gone out of their way to drive us to the station; we had been in their car for an hour and a half. Without them, we would have been in a very sorry, not to mention, dangerous situation. If someone had appeared at 6.30 that evening and offered to drive us to safety for 200 Euros, we would have paid it – especially if we had had the slightest inkling of what lay in front us.

The men refused to take the money.

We refused to let them go without them taking it.

In the end, they did take it and we were incredibly glad that they did.

We owed them a debt which could not be put in monetary terms – still, money was as close as we could get to say ‘thank you’ and it didn’t strike me that these guys were exactly wealthy.

 

By the time we reached Baile Tusnad – 9.30 – the rain had become a torrential downpour.

Our guest house was situated at the end of town (not that Baile Tusnad was very big), high on the mountain side, amidst pines. Normally it took around 20 minutes for us to reach it from the station – during the day. At night, with the heavy rain however, it was a different matter.

At the station, we put on our ponchos and walked up to the main road. This was well illuminated, but the streets which we had to follow up the slope after that had no lighting. We kept losing our way and had to retrace our steps several times. It was so frustrating. As if the day hadn’t been long enough. We were so close and yet so far.

Finally, we got there.

Then the next little hurdle: getting the key to our room.

That morning, we had just got out of the door when the owner of the guest house came running after us, yelling out ‘You! You!’

The ‘You!’ annoyed me. It sounded rude. Then I remembered that he knew only a few words of English (about as many words as we knew in Romanian).

‘You!’ was his way of catching our attention.

He asked us to give him the key to our room so that it could be cleaned. We didn’t want our room cleaned and preferred to have the key with us so that we could get into our room when we liked.

Did he not have his own set of master keys?

Given the communication problem – and that we wanted to start walking instead of wasting time – we just went along with it and gave him the key.

At 10.30 pm at night, wet, cold, and exhausted, we opened the front door to the guest house. There was no one at the reception desk.

I was not amused. The last thing I wanted to do was knock on doors and get the owner out of bed to get our bloody key.

Why had we given that moron our key in the first place?

Hearing a booming TV set coming from behind a door directly opposite the reception desk, we thought we might as well try and knock on the door and find someone who was awake – and might be able to locate the manager.

I knocked loudly on the door a few times.

The manager appeared. He was an elderly man with an aquiline nose and a head of thick grey hair cut short.

He beckoned us inside.

I’d thought that behind the door was someone’s room. It was much bigger. There was a bar and some tables and chairs nearby. We didn’t even know this bar area existed.

There was no one there, only him, drinking a beer and watching TV.

On the surrounding walls were the hides of bears. It made me sick. All that hunting stuff was pathetic. If it wasn’t bear hides it was deep antlers.

When the owner grabbed the remote and turned the TV off and turned the lights off and head towards the door, I realised that he had evidently waited up for us.

I forgot about my anger at seeing the bear hides.

Closing the door behind him, he handed us our key and said:

Big walk you!’

Was it my imagination or was this a classic example of dry understatement?

 

See also Serious Travel Images:

A Weekend in Bucharest – Saturday (Romania)

 

A Weekend in Bucharest – Sunday

Walking Romania

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Anya and I went to Romania to go walking and as far as that went, we knew long beforehand that a good place to do this was in Transylvania.

So our plan was fairly simple: fly to the capital of Transylvania – called Cluj Napoki – look around for an outdoor shop, buy some maps and make a few plans.  We had a good map of Romania, but it seemed to me, after a doing a bit of research on the net, that we needed a map of Transylvania and then also, some more detailed maps showing walking trails.

Only when we were in Cluj and bought the map of Transylvania did we realise that firstly, Romania is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe and secondly, that Transylvania was a lot bigger than we thought. We were forced to scale right down; we ended buying  a map of one part of Transylvania – west of Cluj – and four maps covering most of the trails in that region.

Our approach to walking is to find small towns or villages in areas where there are trails and start there. Access to the trails is crucial. We avoid big towns like the plague. The worst scenario is being in a sizeable town and having to walk along busy roads or suburban streets before we can start a trip. So we usually end up in small, remote places. The problem here is usually finding accommodation and food (the eastern European diet is pretty limited). The attractive side to such places is the ‘cultural dividend’: that wonderful feeling of being a stranger in a strange place, of experiencing something very different to one’s own country. In that sense, Romania was a revelation.

We walked two different kinds of trails – hills and mountains.

None of our maps were in the least bit accurate. They gave us an indication of where trails in general could be found. We soon became adept at improvising: following trails with only a general idea of where we were going and often no idea where we would end up. Sometimes locals on the way gave us directions. In the mountains, there were marked trails although most of the time it was very difficult to find the first markers (because they weren’t there) but once we found them – after an hour or two of taking wrong turns – they were fairly reliable. The marked trails were made for the Hungarian tourists – Romanians in general don’t walk.

Whatever kind of trails we followed, the ones we liked best took us through remote villages. This was where we encountered a way of life which had disappeared from Western Europe 50 or 60 years ago; traditional wooden houses and barns, heavy work horses used to plough fields and pull carts, fences of wooden palings, old women dressed in headscarves and long colourful dresses; shepherds and cow herders. Most of the people living in these villages were old; their kids had long ago departed for one of the cities – or for Western Europe (in the last decade especially there has been a mass exodus). These old villagers knew no other way of life and they were determined to live that life until the end. It was a hard life, especially in winters when temperatures can drop far under zero, yet somehow I couldn’t see them resigning themselves to life in a typical drab communist-era apartment block in one of the cities.

Not so long ago, millions of Romanians lived this way of life. Romania had lagged behind the other Eastern European communist countries. The age of Marx was a schizophrenic time for Romania: on one hand, there was a nation engaged in a Long March to the glories of industrialisation – smoke belching factories, the planned economy, free medical care and public transport, an industrial working class – and on the other hand, millions of peasants, especially in the mountains, living a way of life unchanged for centuries.

25 years on and Romania had joined the E.U. and the younger generation had left and the factories and mines had closed. A new middle class was on the rise. The western consumer revolution had arrived. For millions of Romanians now living in the cities there was a longing for the traditional way of life of the villager; it was a kind of dream image. There were three TV channels devoted to satiating this national nostalgia for a mythical past: traditionally dressed ‘villagers’ singing and dancing and playing their instruments, with cows and horses and grassy fields and wooden houses in the background. Traditional village based music was more popular than ever before. No one of course wanted to ever actually go back to the land and relive the old life – though the middle class were buying up land and old houses and renovating them.

None of this nostalgia was permitted during the communist era. The only dream image permitted was the Socialist Man. Then after 45 years of dictatorship and a failed economic model, the Socialist Man was tossed aside. To be replaced by singing and dancing peasants.

Our flight back to Rotterdam left from Budapest. On the way to the Hungarian border, we left the mountains and took a bus south, passing though big towns constructed during the communist era and now very run down and dilapidated. We stayed for 3 days in a large town called Deva. Amongst other things we took a local bus out to a place called Hunedoara; there was a finely restored medieval castle near the centre but just as interesting were the remains from the communist era: abandoned factories and a huge railway siding, rusted, overgrown with weeds. Then there was the beautiful old railway station at Hunedoara, which had been abandoned; on the walls of the main entry hall were paintings of the Communist Dream probably done about 50 years ago. They seemed valuable to me those paintings. They were a part of the nation’s history. Yet as far as Romanians were concerned, it was a part of their history which they wanted to forget. As if the Lords who had occupied the castle – on which millions had been spent – had been a part of a benevolent age.

Romania was many things, it had many sides to it.

We left the country resolved to come back as soon as possible; for us it was one of the most interesting countries in Europe.

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For more photos of Romania see: Serious Travel Images, Romania: Country of Contrasts Parts 1 and 2

 

For blogs about travelling in former communist nations try:

‘Hitching with Raiko’ (Macedonia):

https://serioustravelblog.com/2016/05/05/hitching-with-raiko-part-1/

‘The Conversation’ (Albania):

https://serioustravelblog.com/2015/07/25/the-conversation/

 

 

Our Lady

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‘Vailankani?’

It was a tip from Mr. Ramamurti, the manager of the budget hotel where I was staying in Pondicherry on the south-east coast of India.

I stayed there for almost a week, not because I found Pondicherry so interesting, but rather because when I arrived there I was very sick. I’d come down with a bad case of dysentery and limped into Pondicherry with no other aim than to find some place where I could rest a while and recover.

And recover I did thanks in no small part to Mr Ramamurti who brought well cooked meals and bottles of soda water to my room – and just as important, offered me his sympathy, which at the time I so desperately needed.

I should also mention that at the same time I began a course of powerful antibiotics.

 

Yes, he was a good man Mr. Ramamurti. The other tourists in the hotel called him ‘Mr. R’ and I got into the habit too.

I have fond memories of Mr. R.

He was terrible liar.

Of all the lies he told me surely none was greater than what he told me about Vailankanni.

And look, to be fair, I needed the lie.

As the amoebas eating away at me from inside were defeated and I regained my physical health, I was left feeling lost and depressed.

Where to now? What the hell was I doing with my life?

I needed a reason to venture forth, to continue, and it was hard to find.

It seemed as if the antibiotics only did half the job. They killed the foreign invaders and left me feeling kind of hollow.

Mr. R. came to my rescue.

Long after I’d left Vailankanni, I thought about Mr. R.

Perhaps that great fabricator of facts, that distorter of reality, Mr. R. had known all along what he was doing. That story about the Portuguese fishing village was told because he wanted to convince me to go there and he knew that I didn’t like big, crowded places. Being a devout Hindu he thought that Our Lady was the tonic I needed and I have to admit, he was absolutely right about that but not in the way he thought.

When I left Vailankanni, it was with a smile on my face. My cure was complete:  

All thanks to Our Lady.

 

Mr. R. told me that Vailankanni was a fishing village on the coast south of Pondicherry.

Centuries ago the Portuguese had used it as a port and a trading post. They had built a beautiful cathedral there.

That got me in. I’d spent time in Goa during the 1980’s and the idea of finding an enclave of Portuguese history and culture attracted me.

He warned me: the accommodation was basic. There were only a few hotels and places to eat.

The line that really got me in and as it turned out, the only thing he told me which was true was:

‘I am telling you Mr. Peter that no western people you know are going to this place, if you go there Mr Peter I can assure you that you  will be seeing no other tourists from Europe….no, no, it is not being on the tourist trail you see, maybe it is being too lonely for you …’

 ‘Too lonely’ for me?

‘I don’t think so Mr R., I’m going!’

‘May God bless you!’

 

An inevitable part of travelling is forming an impression of a place long before you’ve reached it. Often such impressions are formed on the basis of just a few words or even nothing much at all. The mind seems to want to grasp the future and too often grasps at thin air.

My idea of Vailankanni was of a small end- of- the-world town with some little shops and stalls and fishermen’s huts. As for the old Portuguese church: I imagined a church with a high ceiling and a carved and gilded altar, gravestones with Latin epitaphs on the floor, stone columns, statues in alcoves, and stained glass windows; an old gem and probably one which had suffered from centuries of neglect and the tropical weather. Outside there would be palm trees and sand. In the town of Vailankanni there would be a couple of basic eating stalls serving up the usual fare of masala dosa, idly, and rice on a palm leaf. The hotels also would be quite basic, maybe with shared toilets and bathrooms.

Even allowing for the fact that I have never arrived in a place which resembled my preconceived image of it, Vailankanni came as a shock.

When I arrived there, it was to be greeted by the sight of thousands of people.

Vailankanni wasn’t a small, end of the world town at all. To the contrary: it was the site of a gigantic pilgrimage industry, one of the largest in India – and that’s saying something, because when it comes to the pilgrimage industry, no country in the world can compete with India.

I said some highly uncomplimentary things about Mr. R. until I realised I was wasting my time as well as my limited reserves of energy.

I set about finding some accommodation.

This was no small task.

Two hotels in Vailankanni?

Directly opposite the bus stand where I got down (feeling distinctly shell-shocked) was a ‘Church rooms booking office’.

I made my way over there.

There was a big sign listing the pilgrim lodges run by the pilgrim site management. It was a long list. There were lodges catering for every budget. I peered inside the booking office – and gave up. It was cram packed with people. There were long lines standing before various counters and there were whole groups camped outside waiting their turn to join the cues. It could have been a crowd waiting to get into a Champions League game in Europe, minus the riot police.

There were lots of privately run hotels and lodges.

Most of these were full too.

Finally I got a room in a narrow, shabby, multi story hotel – one of dozens – set back against palm trees.

Behind the hotel was a rubbish dump where crows and dogs fed greedily. And also, cows: India’s most sacred animal.

I watched one cow eat a newspaper – an entire edition of ‘The Times of India.’

I loved cows. I loved their peaceful nature. The newspaper-eating cow I noted was an attractive animal. She had short horns and doleful eyes and unlike the other cows, she was coloured with mottled areas of black and white and dark brown.   

I watched her for a while. Maybe it was my vulnerable psychological condition but I felt a wave of sympathy for such a beautiful cow consuming a newspaper instead of munching on rich green grass.

 

2

My room was on the top floor (there were four levels). From my small balcony, I could see many spires protruding above the hotels.

Vailankanni claimed to be the ‘Lourdes of the East’ but the ‘Lourdes’ claim was based upon the number of the spires projecting above the horizon rather than their historical antecedents. In general, one of the great draws of Indian pilgrimage towns – and this is especially true in Southern India – is the ancient lineage of the temples dotting the horizon; they are monuments which have been worshipped for centuries and in some cases, longer.

There was nothing like this in Vailankanni; it exuded an overwhelming atmosphere of newness. The spires filling the horizon had a classical design obviously borrowed from Southern Europe but they were made of newly moulded concrete and they freshly painted white. They burnt in the intense tropical sun like beacons. And as I subsequently discovered, they belonged to buildings which had more in common with a temple than a church. And there was logic to that because many of the pilgrims, if not at least a half of them, were Hindus, not Christians.

It’s easy to understand how Hindus might find an affinity with Catholicism. Idol worship is basic to both religions, along with rituals and miracles and mysteries. Just as the Catholics have their saints, so the Hindus have their deities. In the layers of sculptured gods and demons in the gopuram of a Hindu temple is the equivalent of a grand altar in a Catholic cathedral. Both religions are colourful and extravagant. The antithesis of Hinduism and Catholicism are Islam and Protestantism: religions which very explicitly forbid all forms of idol worship, ritualism and ceremony. And so too Hinduism, a polytheistic religion with a huge diversity of deities male and female, human and animal (not to mention all the incarnations of deities), had an enormous absorptive capacity. It was like a theological kind of blotting paper. Hindus had no problem worshipping Jesus along with any other number of deities including Mohammed, Buddha, Shiva, Rama, Ganesh…every god or goddess being seen as being another aspect of an almighty supreme being.

However the thousands of Hindu pilgrims who came to Vailankanni didn’t come just to worship at a catholic church. They came for Mary – and not Mary as we in the West might know her, but rather in another incarnation: as a Mother Goddess. The image of Mary which was displayed everywhere around the pilgrimage site – and hung in the hotels and was available in poster form in countless little shops and stalls – was like no image Mary I had ever seen. She was portrayed in the fashion of the other Hindu deities: as a resplendently dressed Queen clad in long golden robes with a tall golden crown on her head, a gold sceptre in her right hand, and in her left, a little baby Prince Jesus – who was also attired in golden robes and sporting a tall gold crown.

 

I joined the masses as they thronged passed a long line of stalls selling souvenirs and drinks and snacks, and head to the main cathedral, hopeful of finding some suggestions of an old Portuguese cathedral (e.g. like in Old Goa). In 1962 the then pope had declared it to be a basilica or ‘sacred place.’ From the outside, it was nothing special. Its gothic towers were impressive enough, but gleaming in their new coat of white paint, they looked like something you’d expect to see on top of a wedding cake.

Unfortunately only one section of the cathedral was open. I was told I could go into the main basilica when there was a service. I made a mental note of that.

In the section open to the public, there wasn’t much to see really. It had undergone extensive renovations about a decade ago. There were no high ceilings, no grand altar, no alcoves with paintings and statues, and no gravestones on the floor. It had been divided into two sections. In one section there was a narrow hall dedicated to Our Lady. On the wall was the ubiquitous image of the Queen with her little Prince. It was very crowded. As was the Hindu custom, everyone had left their sandals and shoes outside the entrance. People were standing in front of Our Lady pressing their palms together and kneeling, as they would in a temple before a Hindu deity. And true to the Hindu custom, there were lots of flowers gathered on the floor at the foot of the image.

In the other section of the church was a wide room with a low ceiling from which hung loops of bright red tinsel as if it were an office decorated for a staff party. At the front there was a podium and microphone. Next to the podium, on a raised platform, was a doll house recreation of the birth of Jesus. There were coloured plastic figurines of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus and the three wise men. There were camels and cows and sheep. It looked like something which a bunch of primary school kids had put together as an end of term project. In front of it, on the floor, were people kneeling, locked fervently in prayer. Others were lying on the floor, completely prostrated. I found it difficult to fathom how anyone could kneel or lie in reverence before a set of coloured plastic dolls. I could understand someone worshipping before a god finely sculptured from wood or stone, a sculptural equivalent of Bach. If people had to worship idols, the idols could at least be beautiful. The coloured plastic figurines were, for me, the artistic equivalent of garden gnomes and the antithesis of anything sacred.

But this was just the beginning.

The main church was originally an old structure which had been renovated.

The other shrines had all been built during the last decade in order to provide more places of worship (read: religious attractions) for the steadily increasing stream of pilgrims. Growth begets growth and that’s certainly so in the case of Vailankanni. At the main church, I had simply got the first taste of what was, on a larger scale, a religious Disneyland.  

 

I followed the masses to a shrine called ‘Our Lady’s Tank’.

This had been built to commemorate one of the two occasions when the Blessed Virgin was said to have appeared before mortals at Vailankanni and performed a miracle. In this case, she appeared before a Hindu boy carrying a pot of milk who had rested under a banyan tree. She asked him for some milk for her baby and he gave her the pot. When he turned up at his employer’s house with an empty pot, the employer was not happy: then a miracle happened and the pot filled up to the brim with milk.

The shrine was built at the site of the banyan tree where the Blessed Virgin had appeared.

There was a series of white gothic towers and inside a circular room, where there was a blown up digital image of a tropical scene with palm trees and a lake and a banyan tree and the Hindu milk boy, and in the sky, the image of Our Lady with her little Prince.

The approach to the shrine consisted of a wide bed of sand flanked on each side by stone paths. On the sand were people edging forth on their knees, crawling on their hands and knees, or, lying on their sides and rolling. The distance to the shrine was a good half a kilometre and it was hot: the devout had an awful lot of edging, crawling and rolling to do. On the stone paths were long streams of people. Some of them were chanting, others, singing. At regular intervals on the way there were alcoves featuring scenes from the story of the crucifixion of Christ portrayed in yes, more plastic figurines.

At the shrine of Our Lady’s Tank, thick with pilgrims, a brisk business was going on selling plastic bottles of Holy Water and Blessed Oil. There was a separate building to handle the sales, with long guard rails to ensure that everyone had to cue to get to a counter. The Holy Water and Blessed Oil, it was believed, had miraculous healing qualities. If someone was sick or suffering from some kind of disability, the water and oil was rubbed on like a kind of magic salve. Instinctively I thought about the dysentery which only days before had been gouging me away from inside; I was glad that I had a strip of powerful antibiotics to deal with it rather a bottle of holy water or holy oil. 

There were also a large canteen and some banyan trees – real ones, not digitalized images.

I sat in the shade and watched the crowds of people lining up to buy their holy water and blessed oil.

Departing the shrine and heading back down the long path, I saw a sign for an ‘Institute of Mariology’.

‘Mariology’?

 

 Visiting the other shrines, I discovered a familiar theme: the triumph of kitsch.

What a sad contrast Vailankanni made with the churches and cathedrals I had seen in old Goa not to mention Europe.

Here, the worship of Barbie dolls had triumphed.

On the other hand, unlike old Goa, Vailankanni was thriving. It was popular and it was growing.

Someone had put together a business plan here and it was working.  

 

From the main church, in the opposite direction to Our Lady’s Tank, there was a long arcade about twenty metres wide and half a kilometre long leading down to the beach.

How many people can you fit into a space twenty metres wide by half a kilometre long?

There must be a fixed mathematical answer to that question.

Whatever it is, that’s how many people were in that arcade.

There was not an open space or even a suggestion of an open space to be seen anywhere.

It was quite a sight.

I joined the crowd and allowed it to push me slowly towards the beach. On either side of the arcade there were lurid souvenir shops and kitsch emporiums with big signs and flashing lights. Religious fervour apparently led to consumer fever. Rarely have I seen a greater quantity of cheap junk on sale in any one place (though I admit I’m not an expert on this subject).

Why was it that amongst all those hundreds of stalls and emporiums, no one sold any kind of religious artefacts of any quality or artistic integrity?

Why couldn’t Our Lady inspire something else in the hearts of the human race than banality?

I found it hard to take Vailankanni seriously.

The kitsch was only part of the story.

It was one thing to believe in a Divine Creator, Intelligent Design, a life after death and so on, but it was another thing entirely, as far as I was concerned, to believe in apparitions and miracles. Much of what I had seen at Vailankanni qualified in my own mind as voodoo, superstition, backwardness: the ultimate proof of Man’s deep irrationality.

The following day however I got another perspective on matters.

 

3

This happened when I went in search of an English language book about Vailankanni and how it was established. I wanted to find out how a church built centuries ago, when the Portuguese commanded a mighty seafaring empire, had metamorphosed into a modern Indian spiritual industry and a corporate success story.  

Near the basilica, I saw a sign for a ‘bookshop’. The bookshop however did not have any books. There were only souvenirs, including Mary statues big and small, framed posters and flashing light displays, and a full range of cassettes, CD’s and DVDs – about Vailankanni and Our Lady. The only trace of the English language in the ‘book shop’ was the music playing. It was country and western and I think it’s a fair thing to say, from an American who was a born again Christian. It was all about his momma. She was the best momma in the whole world etc. One day she was called to Heaven and even if she’d known how to come back to earth she wouldn’t have done it because she was up in Heaven with the Angels and the Lord ….and two days after she went away, the first snowflakes for winter fell and ..

Someone pointed me in the direction of a place opposite the bookshop called the ‘Offerings Museum’. In the museum they told me, there was a shop which sold books including in English.

I’ve visited a few museums in my time, but never one like this.

In long rows of glass display cabinets there were testimonials from people who claimed to have been helped in a miraculous way by Our Lady.

The testimonials took the form of a typed or neatly hand written letter detailing the nature of the miracle, along with a photo of the person or persons involved. Many of the testimonials were in Tamil, but there were quite a few in English too. There must have been hundreds of letters in the ‘Offerings Museum’. I went from one glass cabinet to the next avidly reading every one. Some of the letters came with a gift or the announcement of a donation.

The great majority of the testimonials were from Hindus.

I had to smile at some of the miracles attributed to Our Lady. One couple wrote that they had been very poor but after going on a pilgrimage to Vailankanni and praying to her, money ‘came from an unexpected source’ and they were able to buy a house and a new car. A woman detailed how she had been involved in a land dispute with her neighbour; after praying to Our Lady she got a ‘much bigger settlement than expected’ (words underlined). Another woman described how her six year old son swallowed a fish hook but after the whole family got down on their hands and knees and asked Our Lady to save the boy, he miraculously ‘excreted’ the fish-hook, which she’d thoughtfully enclosed with her letter (the hook I mean). A man wrote to thank Our Lady for helping his daughter to gain entrance to Chennai Medical School.

Most of the testimonials however were about your, shall we say, ‘conventional’ kind of faith healing miracle. I found these letters very moving. A typical letter was that of a Mr Rama Krisna. He pointed out that he wasn’t a Christian. His son Raju had been diagnosed with liver cancer. The doctors had given him only months to live. Mr and Mrs Krisna and their son went to Vailankanni and prayed to Our Lady for a month. The boy recovered. Wrote Rama Krisna: ‘The doctors declared that my son’s cure defied all medical knowledge. Our most sincere thanks to Our Lady of Vailankanni for this miraculous cure’. Many other letters were variations on this theme. In some cases, the sick person was treated with Holy Water and Blessed Oil, as well as praying to Our Lady. I had no doubt that if one believed in something strongly enough, it could affect a cure where medical science had given up. The human psychology was a mysterious place.  Other letters were from women who wanted to thank Our Lady for their happy marriages to gentle, non-drinking husbands, or couples who wanted to thank Our Lady for having blessed them with beautiful children. There under the glass panes of the cabinets in the Offerings Museum was a display of human hopes in all their simplicity and urgency: basic human desires a long way removed from the high ideals of visionaries and ideologists. Good health, a good marriage, a happy family, a happy home: there it was: the ambitions of most people on the planet. You couldn’t help but sympathise with the parents who turned to Mary in desperation to save their sick child or the husband who turned to Our Lady to save his wife (or vice versa). Vailankanni may have been a symbol for Man’s irrationality, yet to deny humans the need to be irrational, to believe in the unbelievable, was to deny humans an essential part of what it meant to be human. It was to force humans to be something they weren’t. And it was to deny the relentless cruelty of Life, which often left human beings with little choice but to grasp at whatever straws they could.

 

In the Offerings Museum, there was indeed a bookshop.

Most of the books were in Tamil, but there were a few in English.

I found one called ‘Shrine History of Vailankanni’ and bought it. I still have it today.  

Flipping through the pages, this is what I discovered: Vailankanni was one of the biggest spiritual complexes in India. Besides the numerous pilgrims accommodation lodges, there was a counselling centre, a renewal centre, a retirement centre, hospital, orphanage, primary and secondary schools, dispensary, open air auditorium, canteens, homes for the mentally challenged, aged and disabled, retreat centre (conference hall, chapels, 75 rooms, dining hall), institute for Mariology (promoting ‘the study of the Blessed Virgin on basis of intellectually convincing knowledge of God’).

Then I read the following:

‘From 1963 onwards the Shrine witnessed a rapid progress in its growth, largely due to the zealous and dynamic priests …..each vied with the other to make the Shrine of Vailankanni an ideal place for worship for pilgrims by providing a prayerful atmosphere in and around the Shrine campus. They also strove …to provide adequate facilities for the ever increasing number of pilgrims’.

In this they had been very successful. The Shrine had displayed an impressive degree of growth. A key figure in this proud history had been the Very Reverend Maria Susai. It was he who during the early 1960’s, after the Vailankanni church had been made a basilica by the Pope, had seen the potential for Vailankanni as a major pilgrim destination. Besides initiating the program to build pilgrims quarters and to renovate the basilica, he was responsible for the building of the shrine at Our Lady’s Tank. Furthermore:

‘He had been instrumental in bringing out the movie ‘Annai Vailankanni’ which presents not only the history of the Shrine but also the miracles taking place there. It is no exaggeration to say that this film was largely influential in the sudden surge of pilgrims to the Shrine of Vailankanni in the last twenty years. Indian Overseas Bank was opened in the new block during this period. ‘

Susai ‘s pioneering work had been continued by the other priests.

 

On my last night in Vailankanni, I wanted to attend a mass in the basilica: to enter the main section of the cathedral and take a look around and also, to experience a service attended by hundreds of people. Cram-packed cathedrals were a rare thing in Europe.  

Every day, masses were held in five Indian languages, and English. I wanted to attend the English one. But I got the timing wrong and as I approached the basilica, throngs of people were pouring out on to the pavement outside, which was already quite crowded with people out for an evening stroll.

Music was playing from loudspeakers. It was identical to temple music with drums, flutes, clarinets, and interchanging male and female vocals.

Then She appeared, another highly revered Lady for the Hindus: Our Lady, Mother Cow.

The crush of people miraculously separated to let Her pass unimpeded.

It was really quite touching.

Then I stared in disbelief: it was the very same cow which only the day before I had seen eating ‘The Times of India’.  

The photos accompanying this article can be viewed on: 

https://serioustravelimages.wordpress.com/2015/08/07/vailankani-south-india/