Preparing to greet the dead.

They will commune with the dead. They will welcome the unliving into their lives, for one night only.

The people of Guanajuato join their compatriots in creating elaborate artworks and displays to honour their ancestors who will share the earth with them on this one night of the year. Mexicans young and old will hang ofrendas in homes and public places which carry images of skeletons and other macabre images. For on Dia de los Muertos, the deceased return to the earth and walk among us.

Mexicans will bring forth the dead so as to never forget them. To remember the relatives who were once part of their lives. To pay their respects again and again and not just at that person’s funeral. The annual tribute to their ‘antepasados’ allows families to honour the dead without the overwhelming emotions of a funeral immediately following a passing, when grief releases a torrent of sadness. They will honour all of the dead in colourful and striking public installations, over which they have laboured for hours and hours.

In a land all too familiar with drug wars, gang violence and death, perhaps Dia de los Muertos helps local people come to terms with death.

Mexico is colour. Vibrant colour. Bold colour, and this is true of the installations which welcome the deceased.

Mexicans will celebrate. They will laugh and smile and sing. They will eat and drink and be merry, even when surrounded by death and the unliving. Because even in death, Mexicans will find joy and fun and happiness. There is always an excuse to socialise and to party. Deceased Mexicans wouldn’t expect it to be any different.

The families preparing the public and private installations do so with pride and joy. They smile at the striking images of skulls and gore. They revel in their distinct indigenous customs which survived the Christian influence of All Souls Day and the cultural colonisation of Halloween, which fall on the same day. Yes, they celebrate both of these traditions, but they have never strayed from the expression of Mexican culture which is Dia de los Muertos.

Reusing Maps at Tourist Sites.

Could tourist maps be reused?

You know the paper maps you receive at sites such as The Forbidden City, Teotihuacan, Disneyland or mountain bike trails? The maps you pour over when traversing London or Paris, or when trying to extricate yourself from a Medina in Morocco.

Actually, a map won’t help you escape the labyrinth of a Medina in Morocco – I tried. A savvy local boy is a more reliable guide, as long as he is sufficiently compensated upon exit.

In what condition is the map when you leave?

It is crumpled and covered in scribbles, circles and arrows? Is the map torn, just as your children are torn between the Vomitron roller coaster or the Whiplash dodgem cars?

Was it soaked by the playful dolphins at Seaworld, or sweat stained by the tropical heat in Chichen Itza?

If so, it will simply have to be thrown out.

Or, is it still in good condition? Is it unmarked, unstained and legible? Did you even manage to refold the map to its original folded state? If so, well done.

A map in good condition could be reused, and a reuse system could be introduced at tourist sites to allow and encourage visitors to leave their maps for a future visitor.

Tourists could leave their map in a box when exiting the complex. They can keep the map as a souvenir or place the map in the box. Once the map becomes unusable, it could be thrown into the recycling bin.

The maps could also be left in deposit boxes at hotels and accommodation providers, or at major transport terminals, before being returned to specific sites or visitor information centres.

Does this already exist?

I have never seen this system applied at any popular tourist site I have visited. I love to travel, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit 43 countries, but I’ve never seen a tourist map recycling system in place. My internet search indicated that it does not happen anywhere in the world. Did I miss something, does anyone know if it exists, or has anyone tried to implement the system?

The closest system I have seen is the very informal exchange of maps, along with travel information, at backpacker hostels. Maps were either passed directly from traveller to traveller, or left lying around the common room for anyone to use. Does this still happen, or have flashpacking and online travel resources killed the impromptu conversations that were an integral part of backpacking?

Why?

Reuse is one of the central tenets of sustainability. Reusing tourist maps would reduce the number that are produced and the number of trees that are cut down. The system would also keep maps out of landfill.

In addition, does a map have to be in pristine condition? After all, they are normally referred to briefly before being placed back in a bag or a pocket. They’re not a university degree, a legal document or a certificate of achievement, and they can function perfectly if not in perfect condition.

How many maps end up in landfill?

I don’t know the number, but it must be a lot. Think about the number of tourists (pre-COVID-19) who visit popular sites every year, and the number of maps that are taken and which simply end up in the bin. I’ve done it myself – because I’ve never seen a formal option of reusing my maps.

Why not?

COVID-19

A major impediment to this plan is COIVD-19 and the post-COVID travel reality. Many service providers and health authorities are likely to be reluctant to allow such an exchange of physical objects between many random people, for fear of spreading disease. This is reasonable. However, if it is safe enough to travel, it will be safe enough to exchange tourist maps.

Paperless guides

Paperless guides were growing in popularity even before COVID-19. Many upper-range hotels throughout the world were actually giving their guests a phone upon check-in which is programmed with a host of local information as well as a local SIM card and limited credit. This was driven by customer service, convenience and marketing as much as environmental sustainability, but it is just one indication of a move towards paperless tourism.

Apps

Conversely, many tourist providers and tourist sites have developed apps which contain the same information that is provided on paper maps, and this may reduce the production of paper maps. That said, many smaller or more remote sites, especially in developing countries, lack the requisite technology to transition to an app.

Other forms of recycling

Social media is awash with artworks featuring recycled tourist maps, and many of them look fantastic. Creativity and sustainability have long complemented each other. However, the focus of the article is the reuse of maps at the site at which they are used.

Easy does it

If this system were implanted and if it were to succeed, it would have to be simple. Modern humans expect everything to be simple – some people can’t do anything without an app. Furthermore, people on holiday are taking a break from thinking, planning and working and don’t want to have to make an extra effort just to recycle a map. Providers would have to make the system visible, multi-lingual, accessible and user-friendly.

I don’t see why it can’t happen.

Hangzhou.

Hangzhou is picture postcard perfect. The popular Chinese city south of Shanghai boasts beautifully manicured gardens bordering its expansive lake, and the fragrant blossoms of its seasonal flowers lure visitors from far and wide.

Sunlight dances off the rippling waters, and the surrounding gardens offer a kaleidoscope of colour in the warmer months. Drops of fresh snow on West Lake convert the majestic body of water into a winter wonderland.

West Lake invites wandering. Stroll along its banks and admire the flowers, or stop to picnic at its shores. Waterborne craft ply its waters for an immersive experience.

Evenings promise yet more visual splendour. During warmer months, the lake comes alive at dusk with a wonderful light show featuring shooting fountains and an uplifting soundtrack.

Nearby Xixi National Wetland Park offers yet more beauty. The vast network of marshes, lakes and ponds plays host to a multitude of birds and wildlife and holds enough treasures to entertain visitors for hours or an entire day.

Of course, when something is so beautiful, it must be protected. This explains the abundance of public advisory billboards scattered throughout the city.

Billboards featuring cartoon like characters warn locals and visitors to avoid unsavoury habits such as smoking, spitting, bribery and traffic violations.

The anti-smoking message isn’t working. China is awash with cigarette butts and the stench of cheap Chinese tobacco. Smoking is banned in many places, but tolerated everywhere. Spitting is just as prevalent, and ignoring traffic violations seems to be something of a national sport.

The bribery billboard is interesting. The message is sound, but the Chinese man in the image seems to be accepting a bribe from a foreigner. Does this mean that only foreigners would dare offer a bribe in China? Also, the foreigner has red hair. Are red heads less trustworthy?

The only message that appears to be cutting through to its audience is this one:

Chinese people are extremely patriotic. They don’t always obey the law (see above) but they are fervently patriotic and will defend their national honour with passion and vigour.

At least in the case of Hangzhou, they have something of which to be proud.

Ayutthaya. A City of Ancient Wonders.

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The allure of Ayutthaya is its history.

The ancient city is steeped in tradition and centuries old monuments, whose crumbling facades and cultural significance transport visitors back to a time of distant wonders.

Majestic temples dot the city and can be visited on foot, via tuk tuk, by bike or boat.

Ayutthaya is hot – always. The attendant humidity dictates a visitor’s schedule to early morning or late evening, which is also the best time to avoid the inevitable hordes of tourists. Large groups can destroy the serenity of your visit and find their way into THAT photo, of the Buddha ensconced in the tree at Wat Mahathat.

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Large groups can also prevent you from contemplating the lives of those who inhabited the more popular temples, although they do provide the opportunity for a free History lesson – if you just happen to walk behind the group in earshot of the guide.

Official, guided, multi-lingual tours are available at the entrance to the monuments and are a worthwhile choice for visitors who may otherwise question their passage through a pile of old bricks.

Cruising from Wat to Wat on a bicycle is popular and achievable in Ayutthaya, whose gradient makes it accessible to anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. Most bikes are in reasonable condition and can be easily hired through most hotels or close to the minivan terminal for those alighting from Bangkok. Just be ready to sweat.

Tuk Tuks are everywhere in Ayutthaya and can even be hired, for a negotiated price, to carry you to one site and wait for you before departing for the next temple on your list. Tuk Tuks alleviate the strain of cycling, but be mindful of this option if you are tall – you may need a Thai massage after a day hunched in the back of a TukTuk.

Afternoon and evening tours afford the visitor the opportunity to meander the river by boat, as the sun sets and the day cools. Tours typically visit three or four designated temples, where visitors are given sufficient time to stroll, contemplate, pray and photograph. Some tours may include a visit to Wat Phutthaisawan, although one wonders why. The stark, glass covered entrance resembles an auto parts shop and the resident guides take the form or underfed, mangy, threatening dogs. Completing the horror film tableau are the rows of menacing, child-like figurines, whose mocking eyes follow the visitor down the path like a frenzied Mona Lisa.

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Perhaps Wat Phutthaisawan serves to offset the next and final temple of the boat cruise, Wat Chaiwatthanram. The setting sun dances off the archaic, peaceful, weathered structures which are surrounded by lush green grass and are begging to star in your Instagram feed.

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Many boat cruises finish near the night food market – just in time for dinner. Try the famous Kuay Tiaw Reua.

Transport from Bangkok:

Minivans ply the route from Bangkok to Ayutthaya every day, leaving from Mo Chit Bus Station. They are reasonably inexpensive, easy to find – the touts will find you – and the journey lasts about 1 hour. The journey follows the highway, which reveals little more than Bangkok’s rapid urban sprawl.

Train: The rickety old train lurches from the charmingly rustic station in Ayutthaya and through scenery far more bucolic than the view from the window of the minivan. Trains leave from Hua Lamphong Station in Bangkok.

Boat: Many Bangkok based tour companies provide one day boat tours to and from Ayutthaya.

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Is it right for girls to fight?

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I saw teenage girls fighting Muay Thai recently in Bangkok, and I’m still not sure how I should feel about it.

The fight featured girls as young as 14 battling for glory in front of a healthy crowd of tourists at the end of the Muay Thai Live: The Legend Lives spectacular at Asiatique: The Riverfront in Bangkok.

The promise of authentic Muay Thai fights had lured many visitors who lacked the desire or means to attend a local Muay Thai event full of predominantly testosterone and alcohol charged men betting their life savings on their chosen warrior.

The tourist friendly show, in contrast, features real fighters throwing real kicks and punches, and spilling real blood, in the comfort of an air conditioned theatre complete with plush chairs, cup holders and popcorn.

My comfort was jolted when I saw the two girls emerge for the female fight. They were tiny. Both were short, slim, fit, athletes who looked more like junior marathon runners than fighters.

They’re going to fight?

Surely they’re too young, too small, too slim. They’ll snap in half.

While the girls performed the customary pre-fight ritual, I wondered how much they must weigh, and where they would be placed in boxing categories; featherweight, bantamweight, flyweight…?

Then my questions were answered. Look  ‘Supergirl’ Jaroonsak weighed in at just 48kg. The 15-yr-old would be classified as Mini Flyweight, and her opponent was actually shorter and younger than her.

The next shock arrived with the sound of the opening bell. The girls charged at each other, bouncing, kicking, clinching, kneeing and punching with the energy and freedom of a schoolyard brawl, which any school teacher would feel compelled to break up. The fights continued under the watchful eye of the referee and the young fighters’ natural athleticism, impressive flexibility and sharp skill created two very entertaining contests.

The pint-sized warriors didn’t hold back. The punches were real, the kicks were real and often well placed. The pain was real and so was the blood.

The fight didn’t last the distance, unfortunately. While ‘Supergirl’ lived up to her nickname, the fight came to a premature end when her opponent had to retire hurt. She was stopped not by the barrage of kicks to the leg or torso, not by the punches to the face or the elbows to her crown. Nor did she succumb to Jaroonsak’s  lethal knee strikes. No, she was stopped by a sprained ankle; the same injury she could easily sustain running cross-country or playing tennis or netball.

This incident reminded me that this fight was simply competitive sport for the girls, the officials, the coaches and even the families of the girls, who clapped their daughter upon victory or consoled her in defeat.

It was certainly a sport to Supergirl’s infant brother, who lapped the ring imitating his sister’s kicks and punches with great enthusiasm.

So, while one young girl limped out of the ring with an ice pack around her ankle, I began to think.

Why am I uncomfortable with girl’s fighting?

Would I feel the same way if the fighters had been 14-15-yr-old boys? Am I simply being sexist and conservative?

The girls appear to be fighting by choice and the hours of training had certainly kept them healthy. They demonstrated a high skill level and a genuine respect for the sport and its history, which had been outlined in the preceding stage show.

Is the sport as brutal as it looks?

Is my reaction the product of the safe, sanitised Western society in which I was brought up?

Would my opinion change if I stepped into the ring with them? They’d probably snap me in half.

Are the girls fighting for fun or for a future career?

According to a Thai friend with whom I spoke a few days after the fight, top Muay Thai fighters can earn very good money in Thailand, a country with limited economic opportunities.

Regardless of my doubts, one thing is certain. I don’t remember the names, ages or weight of any of the male fighters from that night, but I certainly remember ‘Supergirl’.

Image: http://www.fightland.vice.com