Religious Tourism


I recall after university I was on a month long bender carousing through Spain when we happened upon Valencia. A fairly big city by any accounts, we were wandering around not knowing anything of the place or what we could do. There was a big church on a corner, and as part time tourists on our trip we decided an idea would be to take a look inside, because you know, churches are what tourists looked at.

At that time it made a pleasant change from the bars and street corners we’d been frequenting.

Inside its cool and dark stainglass lit air we took a moment to ourselves as we looked around. The place was empty, but you could feel the history. The mustiness of the place seemed to tickle some imaginative sixth sense in each of us. Perhaps some kind of proclamation by a priest at the pulpit, or who had sat at the knee worn pews in dreary early modern garb.

Phra Sing Eave on flickr

I won’t lie though, I think we’d left after five minutes and I won’t even bother to imagine what the name of this church may have been. It was though, and this may have been because of the circumstances, a memorable moment among many at the time.

It strikes me now, while I’m in Thailand, that tourism and religious buildings go hand in hand across the globe. Where is the connection between our interest in culture, which is what arguably is the main influence on the tourism I’m talking of here, and this universal fascination with old religious structures, some functioning, some not?

Early Morning Prayer on flickr

There are a few reasons.

Religious buildings are generally speaking awe inspiring. Not every building pars in comparison with European Gothic cathedrals of course, but take my small village in Ireland, Dunboyne. Without a doubt the most impressive structure is the Catholic church which flights to Dublin regularly use as a marker for lining up for their landing at the airport. Less dramatic but certainly steeped in more history is the Prodestant church and graveyard which has a history stretching back several hundreds of years. It is not large, but its quaint location nestled at the back of town and surrounded by trees is worth a wander around.

More importantly, religious structures are awe inspiring because they have absorbed so much wealth and concentration (not to mention lives, materials, and sacrifice) in their construction that they’re deservedly more impressive. Add to this the tests and twists of time which have worn many down to rustic impressions of their former glory.

Another thing to consider is that religion across the planet is a beacon of cultural identity. It is the outstanding feature, undoubtedly, of a people’s background and in many ways it offers an understanding of how society could possibly operate. After years of living in Korea, one of the first questions I still get asked about Korea (after confirming that it is indeed South Korea and not North Korea that I’ve lived in) is what is the main religion there. The answer is not necessarily important to this piece, but the asking is. It shows that people’s curiousity begins from the most obvious point, both from a spiritual (and indeed social) perspective, and a physical one in the shapes of the dominant buildings to be found in a town or city, which are invariably religious.

Waiting for a Prayer on flickr

You can tie these two points in with people’s own natural inquisitiveness to find similarities or differences with their own homes. When we travel we look for things which are different, or how things are done differently. The phenomenon of a corner shop or an alley is an international one, so you do well to find one which is truly unique, but with particular buildings it is easy to notice either the similarities or the differences. Religious buildings, with their central location, wealth, ease of access, and the fact that the main ones are on every tourist map you are bound to find tend to receive more visitors than pagans like myself would prefer.

Of course the real fun about travel, for me at least, is finding the unusual in the usual. What I mean by this is that I prefer to explore the alleys and lanes which surround religious buildings, rather than the buildings themselves. Invariably I end up in these buildings, but there is as much to see surrounding places of worship, escpecially those which have been around for hundreds of years. Many have established markets, government buildings, public squares, and many more curiosities. These may not necessarily be pretty places, but then most of the world where people inhabit is not pretty.

Despite this, what I’ve called religious tourism isn’t necessarily an interest in faith or devotion, it is essentially satisfying our innate human curiousity. Curiousity is what drives us outside in the first place, it spurs our emotions, makes us think, act, respond, and learn. Even if you are not religious, you have to give to religion providing us with these opportunities for self development.

New Year Votives on flickr

All photographs taken in Chiang Mai, January and February 2014. Words and photography © Conor O’Reilly 2014

Choose Your Poison Wisely


It is worthwhile to always know where you are going, and this is especially the case when travelling. I’m not suggesting you do something peculiar like making an itinerary or researching places to stay and see, I’m suggesting that you are aware of what you are letting yourself into. You can look at this from the point of view that you should at least have an inkling of the environment ahead, or have absolutely no comprehension of what to expect. I’m a fan of the latter.

I’ve done a bit of travel in my short amount of years on this earth, most it of it independently, and I think it would be an accurate enough to claim that I’ve never really known what was in front of me. When I first went to Korea in 2005 I had no idea what lay ahead. I glanced through a lonely planet and looked at a few pictures online. I had also heard that Koreans were known for liking a drink, which appealed to the gusto of my age at that time. But that was it, and so I tumbled headfirst into that country and nine years later I’m still tumbling, albeit with a little more composure.

I attach my successful acclimatisation to Korea to this blind dive I took. I think that I had such a lucky streak that I have considered this the best way to approach anything. I travelled down through China and into Laos and then Thailand all overland after my first contract in 2006. I followed this ‘we’ll work it out when we get there’ strategy to the letter, and while I had a great time, Herself back in Korea was none too keen on this randomised approach to independent travel.

In Chiang Mai now, I’m witnessing the second factor in this notion that we should be aware of what we are letting ourselves into. We chose Chiang Mai because we knew it was a big town, with plenty to see and a comfortable enough lifestyle for those who chose to live here. We don’t really have an income, but we’re staying in a small apartment complex with a swimming pool and in decent proximity to much of what we’d like to entertain ourselves with. Did I mention the weather is lovely?

So what of it? Well it’s Thailand, right, so what should you expect? I for one wasn’t one hundred per cent sure, but I’ve lived and travelled in Asia a fair amount since 2009, so I think it would take a good whack of Asia to really knock me off my feet. What we always expect is that Asia will be this different place, full of mysticism, spirtuality, tradition, and I dare say, inspiration.

When I first came to Korea I was definitely without mysticism, spirituality, tradition, and certainly inspiration. I couldn’t say now that I came looking for it either, but I know that I have certainly found them, that’s not to say that I actually care for all of them. Inspiration however has been a major factor in my life since I came to Korea, and it is without doubt one of the most important changes I believe to have experienced since I arrived here.

If you arrive in Asia, you can’t expect to find all these wonderful life changing moments waiting for you as you disembark. For anyone considering a journey east, I beg you to look at the demographics. The populations for many Asian countries dwarf western countries. There are obvious cases like China and India, but even without considering them Japan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia all have well over 100 million inhabitants, the combined population of the two Koreas is larger than that of Germany. While I’m talking about this you’ve got Vietnam and The Phillippines with over 90 million people, and even Thailand has a larger population than France. So what’s my point? When you have this many people living together, what do you expect? If you’re still thinking mysticism, spirituality, and tradition then perhaps you should stay where you are for the time being.

In reality, what you’re supposed to be expecting, in reality is urban squalor, poverty and wealth face to face with each other, pollution, commercialism, greed, violence, and invariably western influences. All of these are mixed in somewhere with all these things you expect, and you can find them, but expect to step over a few open sewers and drunks fighting in the street on your way to get to it.

While of course there is plenty of tradition in modern Asia, what makes it different and more complicated now is that it is not only western countries which are experiencing multicultural challenges. Religions mix in capital cities, rural people welcome city dwellers, developement changes long established patterns of life, and for the visitor familiarity is all to present. You will often here terms such as globalisation bandied about, and I suppose you can argue that this is a good example of it, whatever this is of course, but to accept this concept of globalisation now is to accept that it has always been a factor as long as humans have been living together, just on a smaller scale, it’s just a question of recognising how large your world actually is.

I suppose that is why we came to Chiang Mai for two months. It was of course an escape from the cold (albeit not that cold compared to the few people from Mongolia who are also here) but also to try something we’ve always talked about doing. We came without a plan, other than to be here, and we came to enjoy a time which may be our last opportunity to do so. There is nothing to discover here. There is no search for some kind of beauty or new sense of self.  There is just a chance to be part of a greater world.

If we find inspiration here I suppose we are all the better for it. I prefer to look on this situation to see if we actually get more things done. Productivity is its own kind of inspiration and the mind works quicker and stronger when it is busy and active thinking with direction. A holiday or a change of location can help this, but getting stuck into your experiences is nothing but good food for inspiration. My point is, if you come looking to find it you won’t, but if you come just looking then you will probably find something, whether you expect it or not.

In the end, time will cure the ills brought on by your decisions.

 

Words and photographs © Conor O’Reilly January 2014. All rights reserved.

Seamus Heaney


Seamus Heaney died today. He was 74. By no means a young man, but in this day and age it cannot be denied that one of the world’s greatest poets has left us early, and this is to say nothing of the feelings I can barely imagine his family and friends are suffering under as we speak.

I was once in the same room as him. That is the best that I can say of my personal relationship with him. It was in UCD and he was presenting on a reworked version of the Antigone, where he spoke about the challenge of translation and representing the Ancient Greek classic in the twenty first century. To tell the truth, I can’t recall if we went up and introduced ourselves or not. He struck me as I did not expect someone of his significance to strike me; down to earth, honest, and light hearted, with a deep and warm voice from which words seemed like they were happiest coming from.

I wanted to post a poem that I thought would symbolise how I felt about Heaney. One that would allow me to think of him and his place in the world, and my position next to him. I don’t really know much of his poetry, and by much I mean probably about a percent of his thousands of published works.

When these unfortunate situations come around it’s always appropriate to find the right poem, and maybe the right poem is the one we always remember first when we think of a poet, or artist, novelist, or whoever it is to be remembered.

The poem I remember is Digging.

As I read this poem I read about a man who could not match his familial talent for digging. Potatoes. Turf. Earth. These were all buried deep his background, but he found himself buried deep in books and writing, struggling to see how he could emulate his father and grandfather.

When I was thirteen or fourteen we read this poem in school. I enjoyed it and understood it, but perhaps that was all. Little connection with this seems to have been made between the poem and the man who wrote it who won the Nobel Prize for Literature a couple of years later. This connection was not established until many years later.

In the poem, what Heaney teaches me here is that it doesn’t matter how distant or untraditional your direction in life may find itself verging. Always do your damnedest and dig deep always for the good turf and your labours will be rewarded. If you feel you are not doing them justice by not following in their footsteps, there are fewer finer displays of gratitude than dedicating your success to the influence of family who went before you.

It seems like a simple message because it is, that’s why it is so effective. The idea behind this has not been lost on me despite being so far away from Ireland and my own father and grandfather. We all take different paths in life but we need good guides to show us where best to tread or footsteps.

Rest in Peace Seamus Heaney, you have finished digging. And the hole you dug is good, very good.

Digging

by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with.

(poem courtesy of the Poetry Foundation)

Old Man Syndrome


On Friday morning at around 6.40, while many were still in bed or still only waking up, I was standing in the delivery room of the maternity hospital in Dongtan where myself and Herself have been frequenting on and off over the past nine months. Staring right in our faces was a tiny, screaming child, whose skin was still blue and covered in quickly drying blood having just being removed from the womb of my beloved wife. I will not lie. I cried at that very moment, but I did my best not to show it.

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Our little girl, otherwise known as +1, is perfect. She is tiny, delicate, confused, but still she is part of both of us and just thinking of her makes me smile. I’m pretty sure there are plenty of parents out there who have felt exactly the same at this moment. It’s this happiness and pride which is coercing me to share this news with you today.

I think that, right now, my biggest challange is accepting the fact that the rest of the world is moving on around us, oblivious of this moment, one which is probably irrelevant to many. I think tomorrow morning when the world restarts with work and appointments to meet, we will click back into gear somewhat. but for now, I don’t really care.

I really can’t go into enough detail about much now, as I am too riddled with emotion to account for myself adequately, and even if I could it wouldn’t represent my state of mind, because it is basically just full of mesmerised questions!

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These are just some of the thoughts fleeting around my head at every second:

How can a person’s skin be this soft?
What will she actually be like?
I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.
A smile really does make one smile in return.
All communication is a language which needs to be learned.
The future has just become a whole lot more daunting.
For all that we imagined, we could never have imagined this.
It is now less of a wonder why people believe in God.
We are not the first people to have a new baby and we will not be the last.
The human body is more amazing than you think, and when you look at women you really have to appreciate this even more.
My mother, who had five sons, really is a tougher nut than she looks.
My daughter looks like my mother.
How should I react? Herself’s friends and family, as well as hospital staff have congratulated us over and over again because our daughter resembles me. If this was in Ireland I’m fairly sure people would be consoling Herself… (maybe not the hospital staff but definitely my brothers and friends).
I think that the occasions where I’ve been happier, or equally happy, have been few and far between.

And as I tweeted earlier…

Over the past three days I have turned from a skeptic and a cynic to an idealist and an optimist. We’ll see how long this lasts.

Life has changed this weekend, and I hope to be a better man because of it.

What Motivates You To Write?


It’s probably a little cliché to write about what makes me want to be a writer. If you ever happen upon any websites that promote writing and offer advice on becoming a writer, you’ll probably not struggle to find a page of quotations about why such-and-such a writer writes, as well as a long list of links or articles about why people write, and all of them essentially say the same thing. They write because writing is just something they have to do. I would share the same sentiments.

Not everyone is a writer, but everyone can write, and some people can write better than others, which is a no-brainer. Becoming a successful writer definitely doesn’t need as much effort as becoming a quality writer, an acclaim which requires the 10,000 hour (or more) treatment. To spend 10,000 hours focusing on anything requires a lot of determination, although I won’t deny that some people just end up having to do it. But when you are making this effort on a craft you love, then I think the effort counts for something different.

The Beatles may have played for 10,000 hours, or at least close to it, when they were in Hamburg.

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