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Wednesday, 26 January 2011, I - er I go to church -cough! (blush, blush..)

Perhaps I need to go back a few years to imagine this:
I walk up to a bar at a tavern and wait my turn to order a drink. Behind me five men sit at a table playing cards with some money in the middle, ready to be moved to the player who turn up trumps. A heavy pall of cigarette smoke hangs over the table. These guys look tough. Each wearing a tee-shirt exposing barrel-shaped biceps, as if the result of years of heavy labour. Also beside each one stood an unfinished pint of ale. Not lager, but darker, stronger ale. Eventually I order my drink, and catch the attention of one of them as I turn around, and as a column of smoke drift out of his mouth, his eyes widen and watches me make my way to another table nearby to sit alone to sip at my glass of  Babycham, complete with cherry on a stick. In next to no time all five on the other table laugh and guffaw. Why? My Babycham is just as alcoholic, if not more so, than their beer. Then one blows a wolf-whistle and shouts, "Poofter!"
Maybe I alter the story a little. One of then knows me and beckons me over.
"Tomorrow we have our Sunday morning match. The Rugby club is just a mile away from here. Why not give us your support?"
"Er, I can't. I need to go somewhere else."
"C'mon mister, what's all this about?"
", I er - I go to church - ahem - on Sundays." I stammered.
The guys slapped their hands on their knees as their united chorus of laughter momentary attracts attention from everyone else in the pub.
I gulped down the last of the Babycham and with the cherry stick protruding out of my mouth like a cigarette, I saunter out and decided to make the trip to the college bar, at the next town a few miles away.
I assume the better educated will be much more tolerant. After all. the majority at my fellowship are middle class and hold professional jobs.
As I sat in the bus, I couldn't help ponder...tough guys?
I wondered whether any of them would with determination make his way to a city knowing full well that once there, he would be falsely accused, stand at a sham trial and then executed - put to death, not by lethal injection but by hanging for hours on end, nailed to a cross. Yet he pressed on, even as his best friend pleaded with him not to go there. He also knew that he must refuse any sedative, and bear the full brunt of his pain. And on top of this, endure the cruel teasing and mockery from the baying crowd surrounding him. He knew all that lay ahead, yet he pressed on, determined to get to Jerusalem and face the ordeal.
Yet I bet none at that table were half as brave or determined as this Jesus of Nazareth. Sure, they might join the army and train to fight, but that is more for adventure, with the added flavour of the risk to die for the country. But all this is heroism, a form of self-worship. Jesus of Nazareth marched to Jerusalem to die a criminal's death, not an heroic one.
I got off the bus and made for the college bar. I have a friend who attends this college and he has given me a special pass, to allow me to use their bar. I ordered another drink, a Coke this time, and sat at a table among a group of chatting students, some aspiring to graduate as medical doctors.
"Yes, I go to Church on Sundays - " I replied with much more ease than at the tavern earlier that evening.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, we have a Creationist here among us!" One of the students exclaimed.
"So you believe in Evolution?" I asked.
Of course we believe in evolution! Charles Darwin as PROVED that Creationism is bunkum. Look there is his mugshot:"

"Okay," I said. "But wasn't there a possibility that he could have been mistaken?"
"Oh come on now! People like you are still living in the Dark Ages. It's about time you caught up with our scientific facts borne out by years of research."
Another student piped up,
"One of our top evolutionists is Professor Richard Dawkins, a disciple of Charles Darwin."
"The atheist who wrote the book The God Delusion?"
"He's the one. Such a researcher! He has ripped all false belief systems to shreds, especially Christianity."

"And now this whole nation is moving away from such falsehood through him. He is our Great Enlighten-er. It's a matter of time now before all churches will eventually close down, and all this ridiculousness will be thrown into the bin for good. Then the nation and the Western World will live in the enlightened era of science!"
All the students present looked triumphant. They all knew I was outwitted.
"Okay," I concluded, "but I believe the hospitals will soon burst at the seams with a greater influx of patients."
"How come?"
"Because Jesus Christ of Nazareth said before he was crucified,
'Do not worry what you shall eat or what you shall drink or what you should wear... For your Heavenly Father knows you need these things...Look at the birds, you are worth much more than them, yet your Father feeds them...but you seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you...'"
"But what has this got to do with our discussion? We are talking about Dawkins here."
"Aren't some of you aspiring to become doctors?" I asked.
"Then any doctor will tell you that WORRY is the main underlying cause of most illnesses and diseases. Didn't you know that his advice I just quoted PREVENTS much of these ailments? And he was a firm Creationist!"
Leaving the bar I took the last bus home.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Hiking - Stress-Free Travel

When I was a boy Mum used to send me to shopping errands on my own. I wasn't even ten years old then as I popped to the groceries only a couple hundred yards from home at the quiet residential area of Pimlico, SW London to buy a loaf of bread or a tin of peeled tomatoes. But again, for children to be outside unsupervised in those days was quite normal. Yet walking was something I grew up to enjoy, mainly that although slow, it meant that I can appreciate my surroundings without the stress of traffic, whether it's by car or bicycle or even from the bus or train when long distance transport is not on the agenda.

It was about that age too, that I walked from my home to Battersea Park, and even on one occasion, to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. During my last year at primary school in the heart of residential Fulham, where the four chimneys of Fulham Power Station looked into the playground, I stayed behind with a few other children for Play Centre, then made my own way home by catching a bus at Kings Road to Victoria Station and walking home from there.
It gave me a wonderful sense of independence and I guess, responsibility. I guess this is where my love for travel had its origins. There is a world out there waiting to be explored.
Having grew up in Central London, I always felt at home in the city. And walking from one side of London to the other I found to be inspirational.

And it was years later, in 1998 that I hiked Broadway, in the heart of  Manhatten. Starting at Uptown, near Harlem, the Broadway runs north/south, intersects with West 42nd Street at Times Square. At 5th Avenue and West 23rd Street I was looking up the peculiar structure of Flatiron Building, the world's first official skyscraper and for a short while enjoyed being the tallest building in New York before the Metropolitan Life Building rose to eclipse it. Eventually the hike terminated at Battery Park, on the southern tip of Downtown, from where ferries to Staten Island, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island departs. All this was done in a day, hence dayhiking as it's known in the States, or rambling over here.

But hiking was most challenging out in the sticks. The best venue I enjoyed hiking was at the Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park. Hiking, as opposed to rambling, involves at least one night spent on route. At Grand Canyon, I spent the night at Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Canyon, close to where Bright Angel Creek joins the Colorado River.

1. Bright Angel Trail - about halfway down
2. Zoroaster Butt overlooking the Colorado River
3. Bright Angel Creek
4. South Rim Grand Canyon -evening.

Special preparations were needed for this hike. I needed to take plenty of water and some salted food such as nuts. Although the public was advised not to go down on their own, I did anyway. This was because of my experience in walking. In 1978 I completed the hike, taking about four hours to reach Phantom Ranch from the rim, and nine hours to climb back out, which I did on the following day. I repeated the hike 17 years later in 1995 for better photography and a three-mile extension to Plateau Point, where one has a terrific view of the Colorado River from above. This made the first hike 19.2 miles round trip, and the second hike 22.2 miles long, both involving a night spent at the bottom.
But hiking was not restricted overseas. Here in the UK there are three distinct trails I hiked ether on my own or with two close friends. Dan, Tim and I hiked the Hadrians Wall Trail from Carlisle to Newcastle in 1996. Believe it or not, of the three of us, one being an accountant and the other a financial advisor, I was the weakest hiker, despite completing the Grand Canyon hike just the previous year. But perhaps I was the most determined. On day three of the hike, the trail became a 22 mile long, straight and very tedious road leading into Newcastle. Tim opted out of the hike on the morning of the third day. Dan would have done so too. But I insisted on finishing in the heart of the city, so Dan and I finished by nightfall of the third day, while Tim made his way back to Carlisle, where all three of us were reunited at the station.

Hadrians Wall was unique for its history. At each mile along the wall the Romans built forts, or Chesters. These were mainly quadrangles where guards watched at the gates. But one really intrigued us. Called "Chesters" this fort was the most well preserved Roman ruin in the whole of the UK. Not only were hypercausts for baths located there but latrines in near full working order were also in the vicinity.

The two other trails I completed on my own were the Lake District National Park, involving a lot of hill walking from Kendal to Keswick, in about five days. Each night, was spent a a different hostel, including Ambleside, on the shores of Lake Windermere. The hostel was the largest in the UK outside London and the lake itself being the largest in England.
The West Coast Path was the other, where being nearer home, I hiked and rambled here, mainly between Bournemouth and Exeter, on several occasions. It is in my opinion one of the most dramatic and beautiful parts of the whole of the UK. My favourite is Purbeck, which includes the resort of Swanage.

1. Old Harry Rocks, Dorset Coast Path at Purbeck
2. Dorset Coast Path approaching the Pinnacles

All these hiking trails, except the last part of the Hadrians Wall hike, were on trails, or footpaths away from any motorised traffic. The scene was always peaceful and serene, no matter how challenging the hike was. Both the Grand Canyon and the Dorset Coast Path, part of the West Coast, offered stiff challenges on steep hills. Yet one can stop anytime, have a refreshment snack, admire the scenery, hear the sweet sound of nature, e.g. birds singing, insects buzzing, the sea crashing on rocks or the near silence as the path crosses a field, save perhaps the bleating of sheep, or as in the UK, from time to time the patter of raindrops or the howling of the wind. But even with adverse weather, nothing is nicer than arriving at the hostel or hotel to enjoy the comfort of the warmth within.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Gym and Sauna - An Ancient Roman Resurrected

When I was at secondary school between 1964-1968, of all lessons on the curriculum, the one which always gave me the jitters was that dreadful 35 minute P.E. period. In the early days, that is in my first year in particular, it appeared twice a week, on the second period before the morning break. Therefore the first period, which was labeled "Maths" received scant attention. In addition to the two P.E. lessons was the double period Games, played on the field outside once a week. Here it was assumed that I was born with the innate knowledge on how to play football and rugby without the need to be taught or understand the rules. After all, at primary school in London we never kicked a football, let alone handle an oval one. Little wonder I was always the last boy standing on the shelf after the team captains had selected their players.
But it was the gym that scared me. The wooden floorboards were raised a little from the ground, and with an air space underneath, this created a thunder effect whenever we ran across it. The acoustics were further embellished by the deep, almost growling voice of the P.E. master, an ex serviceman who kept a size 11 plimsoll in his office, adjoining the boys changing room. Whenever a pupil forgot his kit, he was made to bend over, in front of all the rest of us, to have the sole of the footwear slam across his buttocks.
So I left school with a very negative feeling about the gym, which made me even more glad to throw away the school uniform (although now I wish I had kept it as memorabilia).
It was five years later as a fledgling backpacker that I stood among i scavi of Pompeii, an ancient Roman settlement which was wiped out by the eruption of Vesuvio in AD 79. One of the sites I stood at was the Palaestra an exercise yard complete with Natatio or outdoor swimming pool.

                                                     Above: The Palaestra at Pompeii
                                                     Below:  The Natatio

Palaestra was a Latin term used in the Roman language. The Greek name for the same exercise yard was Gymnasium. From the Greeks we use the word Gym in our English language today.
There seemed to be an irreconcilable difference between the Roman Palaestra and the school gym. Especially when socialisation also took place there. Many of the ancient exercise yards were part of the bathing complexes, within one can exercise, swim then sit inside a Calidarium, or hot, steamy sweating room, then plunge into the cold water of the Frigidarium. Very much like the sauna today. It was not only a leisure centre to promote health and well-being but a social hub where even business transactions were discussed and finalised.
Here was the contrast between what the gym was originally intended and the 1960s school version. In the latter what I went through as a schoolboy was actually a military drill. It brought fear and a general dislike to team sports. It had also made me averse to serving the Country in the military. The P.E. master's attempt to transform me into a young British bulldog was a complete failure.
I was introduced to the sauna for the first time in 1976 by a work colleague, three years after that trip to Italy. Perhaps as a full-blood Italian, the sauna brought out the long-hidden Roman ancestry out of me. I just loved it. Even the ancient Romans had the dry sweating room, the Laconicum. Sitting in the sauna has identified myself with my own ancestors.
 Over the years I began to develop a weight problem. When it got serious enough to raise concern, the nurse who I came to consult, recommended visiting the gym as part of the weight-loss program, along with a change of eating habits.
The gym at Coral Reef Water World, very close to where I live, was once called Sunny Gyms, something more likely found at the lobby of a Caribbean hotel, and I often wondered what my old P.E. master would have made of it.  The very title emphasised the difference between it and my old school gym.
Having been refurbished in recent years, The Health Studio, as it's now called, is where I call once or twice a week, if I can get the extra time. The machine I use is the elliptical cross trainer.

                                                        Above: Coral Reef Health Studio
                                      Below: Rear drive elliptical, the same at the Health Studio

On the elliptical I can complete a cardio workout over a course of fifty minutes, burning off as much as 1,120 calories, which is roughly half a full day's calorie intake. To make the workout less tedious, I have the wall-fixed television tuned into Radio Magic, a virtual non-stop music playing channel which specialises in music from the 70s to the 90s, which is ideal for my generation.
After the gym session, it's the steam room, the modern Calidarium. After a fifteen minute sitting, its the cold plunge pool, or Frigidarium. Then a full session at the Laconicum, or sauna. It is here, in the sauna suite at Coral Reef that I have met other bathers and made friends, even visiting each other's homes, dining and going out running together, and yes, talking business matters.
It's thanks to the gym and sauna facilities right up my doorstep that this ancient Roman has been fully resurrected to enjoy the greater pleasures along with superior hygene in the 21st Century.