Beware sightseeing

View from Giralda

If I can offer one word of  caution to new travellers it would be this – beware sightseeing.  Don’t get me wrong – I will visit sights with the best of them, often with jaw dropped in true #hicksfromthesticks mode (liked that so much I’m hashtagging it!).  HOWEVER,  I will now only do so because the site has a personal meaning and interest for me.   I won’t go to a place just because it’s on the “must see” lists of travel forums.

For example, the photograph above was taken from the top of the Giralda bell tower at Seville Cathedral, looking down into the cathedral courtyard.  To be honest churches don’t do much for me apart from the history and architecture.  As centres of spirituality they leave me  stone cold.  Especially medieval ones, which were more about power and monarchy than the glory of God.  One visit to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris got that straight in my head.  Yes it’s staggeringly beautiful, but if there was ever a place to make one feel small that’s it.  But I digress …. back to Seville.  Christopher Columbus is buried inside the cathedral here in a tomb that can only be described as awe inspiring.  Here is his coffin, carried on the shoulders of Kings.

Obviously while I’m not in Columbus’ league, I do like to think of myself as an explorer of sorts, which was my reason for visiting the cathedral and to pay a bit of homage to the man.    As an added bonus nearby was the site where the remains of the Magellan crew came to pray and give thanks after they finally returned home.  All eighteen of them out of the two hundred plus who set out.   So another totally unexpected link to exploration and the new world.  Whilst I admire their courage, their drive and their spirit unfortunately their actions did not bode well for the indigenous peoples of the lands they explored.  Half of South America’s gold resources  appear to be adorning the back wall of the altar!

In a round about way I’m getting to the point of this entry.  DON’T whatever you do blindly follow lists on forums or in guidebooks of suggested places to visit.  BEWARE of multi day museum passes which would have you whizzing from antiquity to antiquity for the whole of your stay in a city.  Paris anyone???  Only go to places which have meaning for YOU.  Do your homework, make a list, and then halve it because there will be inevitable snafus over timing – surely they can’t be closed NOW?? Over transport – you really mean it takes three buses and a train to get there???  Over money – HOW much did you say the admission was??????   Or you’ll be side tracked by beautiful and alluring markets and bookstores (ahem….) And despite the wonderful deals on museum passes, in reality my brain can only process one museum a day and a maximum time at any one museum of three hours.  Any more and my eyes start to glaze over and roll back in my head.  There’s always another day (and a good excuse to revisit whatever city you are in).  You’ll never see everything so why bother running yourself ragged trying.  Personally I’d rather mooch and explore a new place on foot, and have an excuse to stop at sidewalk cafes, try out the food and get talking to some locals.

In doing this you leave yourself open to the unexpected encounter, whether it be people, place or event.  And therein for me lies the joy of travel.

Begging

poverty

Some days I wonder if this blog shouldn’t be renamed Hicks from the Sticks.  The old saw that travel broadens your outlook is true.  Coming from NZ where we have virtually no beggars the vexed question when away is often what to do about begging? Its just not something we deal with on a day to day basis and therefore  we have no experience in how to handle it gracefully. Beggars made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and awkward. However, travel nearly anywhere out of NZ and there they are sitting in front of supermarkets, fast food restaurants and visitor attractions. Waiting….

For a long time I was pretty staunch about the matter. I didn’t give money to beggars and that was that. They should go out and get jobs and not hang around and make me feel uncomfortable by wanting my hard earned money. Considering I’ve long been a left wing liberal voter that didn’t quite make sense.  Several incidents stand out in memory:

  • Being chased lickety split down a footpath in Italy by an elderly lady with a walking stick who’d previously hit up a couple of locals for money by hobbling up to them hardly able to walk. She could sure move when she wanted to.
  • Demands for money from self appointed “door openers” and “shoe minders” at religious sites.
  • A guy in a wheelchair in Tangiers struggling up a hill in a marketplace.  He  surreptitiously rejected help from locals because he could see a likely bunch of tourists at the top of the hill to tap for cash.

These moments,  plus stories of deliberate mutilations and “Mr Big” operations harvesting the cash added to my cynicism.

Recently I’ve softened my attitude considerably.  It’s taken some time but I’ve reached a compromise that I can live with.   A discussion with a lovely gentle friend back in New Zealand who’d spent some time in India made me think twice.  She considered it her little piece of social service (as there was none provided by the state) and gave to the beggars at the end of her road whenever she went out.  So did seeing our driver (who had very little of his own) on a trip in Myanmar give to a begging couple when I’d refused.  THAT made me feel SO ashamed.  I discussed it with the tour guide at the time and his advice was to give from the heart.  Just don’t give if you don’t feel you want to.  Wise advice.

Now I do give to some beggars.  I don’t know if I’m doing the “right thing” whatever that is, or if I’m supporting a local crime ring.  The only thing I know is that I have more than those people sitting on the street in all weathers.  And I can afford to give them something even if its only a couple of coins because that’s all the change I’ve got today.  Hopefully they get to keep something out of it all.

There’s a lady locally who sits outside the supermarket every day with her sign and a paper cup.  She has the face of a Madonna and always smiles and says hello and wishes me a good day.  A friend who’s lived here for some time tells me that this lady inherited the “job” from her mother.  I’d never thought of begging as a job to be inherited before.  I certainly wouldn’t like to do it.  Whenever I come out of the supermarket I give her a few coins and she wishes me a good day.  It’s a pleasant interaction – much better with the money-with-menaces approach of shoe minders and door openers.  I enjoy seeing her and I like to think that she enjoys seeing me, despite her lack of English and my small amount of Spanish.

I think that there’s so much going on behind the surface with begging that we can never really know the truth of the situation.  All I know is that I look at these people and think – do I have more than you?  The answer is inevitably yes and that I can spare a little.  Some may consider this a sop to my white liberal conscience but who knows what the “right thing” to do is?

All I know is that Mr Win of Myanmar gave the best advice of all:

Give from the heart and only give when you want to.

 

 

Cuevas de La Pileta – prehistory up close

Horse - Cuevas de la Pileta

 

Whilst the coastal strip here in the south of Spain is heavily populated, an hour or so in the car and a very different far more rural Spain can be reached.  Ronda is an old mountain town with many attractions and well worth a visit for its own sake, however the nearby  Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema and the Cuevas de La Pileta were the focus of this trip.

The caves were discovered in 1902 by a local farmer Jose Lobato Bullon.  Sr Bullon spotted bats emerging from a cliff face near his home, one evening.  Hoping to find a good source of bat guano to fertilise his fields Sr Bullon let himself down the cliff face on a rope made from esparto grass to the entrance of the Cave of the Pool where he found remains of ceramic pots, bones and some cave paintings.

The Bullon family still has the rights to manage the caves and descendants of Jose Lobato Bullon are still guiding tours there.

Cuevas de La Pileta contain some of the best cave paintings in Spain. Human and animal remains, pottery and of spectacular stalagmites and stalactites have also been found here.   Coming from such a young country as New Zealand, being able to view prehistory up close and personal is a privilege.  What surprised me was how close we were able to get to the images and how expressive some of  the lines were.  The paintings range from approximately 40,000 to 10,000 years old.  There is some debate over the exact age – new techniques measuring the amount of calcification over the images are suggesting the earliest ones may be up to 50,000 years old.  Staggering.  The cave hasn’t been continuously occupied for the whole of that time but 30,000 or so years of use is incredible when you compare it to the lifespan of a modern home.

Whilst there were some beautiful expressive paintings of animals many of the images were comprised of rows of criss crosses and random lines.  Experts surmise that some of these were early attempts at calendars.  Or perhaps just a prehistoric version of “Kilroy was here” – caveman graffiti (my theory)!  What surprised me the most were the paintings of fish and seals.  Given that the caves would be an estimated two or three day walk from the sea, the ability of that early artist to hold an image in their mind and faithfully reproduce it with rudimentary materials is impressive.

The fact that people with so few material possessions and living in such a difficult environment felt the need to create art shows how important creativity is to mankind.  We have been making art from our earliest most primitive days.  Politicians who would cut funding to the arts would do well to take note.  Art is not a luxury.   It has been a necessity from our earliest times.