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Classic Backpackers . . . .

THIS ARTICLE WRITTEN ESPECIALLY FOR AND FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE EZINE The Long Trip Home, JULY, 2002.



The Great Mosque at Kairouan

The Great Mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia. Islam's fourth holiest city - is this a destination for your pilgrimage?

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Read more about the Great Mosque













When you go on a pilgrimage, you go for the experience, not the sights ...

I have trouble working out what is a "backpacker".

Those that now embark on low budget independent holidays are often toting credit cards and wheelie bags - so the notion that you have to make do with the cash in your pocket and carry a bag on your back to be a backpacker seems to most to be a waste of energy and effort.

So let's get rid of our bag hang-ups (and I can tell you that a bag that rolls can make a journey a lot more enjoyable) and consider other qualifications that allow us to proudly announce . . .
"I'm going backpacking!".



The first back-packers were pilgrims, those ancient travellers who undertook their long journeys to places of worship or significance to their culture. These "backpacker" journeys were, on the most part, of a low budget nature, where the pilgrim carried a few personal possessions and slept out or in sub-standard accommodation. Sometimes, great personal danger and exhaustion were accepted as being part of the journey and even, perhaps, adding to the experience. Sounds just like backpacking, doesn't it.

So maybe we should consider undertaking a pilgrimage-like journey to truly qualify as a backpacker.

We naturally think that the more modern religions of the world invented pilgrimages. But in fact, the practice goes back to very ancient times when river and mountain gods were thought to be the providers of bounty and salvation. In these ancient times when gods were somewhat localised, a follower in need, who was away from his usual place of abode, would make a pilgrimage back home to ask a favour of "his" god.

At the Damascus Gate, Jerusalem
At the Damascus Gate, Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is the destination for pilgrims of many religions.

Whatever religion you follow there is a place of pilgrimage, especially for religions that are centred on a single character. It is only natural, as a follower of a faith, to want to visit spots made sacred by the birth, death or the deeds of significant prophets of your religion.

Especially famous perhaps are the pilgrimages that Buddhists make to Kapilavastu (Lumbini, in the Nepalese foothills) where Gaukama Buddha began his life, or to Mecca and Medina, where Islam draws hundreds of thousands of white clad pilgrims each year.

For Christians there are destinations like the medieval city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain where there is an established 1000 year-old walking route that will lead you through cobblestone paths, villages and country lanes to the burial place of St James. An older and perhaps more popular destination for Christians is the city of Jerusalem. The earliest recorded Christian pilgrimages to this ancient city go back to the third century. Eventually, Jerusalem became sacred also to Moslems.

Hindus will pay their homage at diverse traditional destinations in the high Himalayas and on the plains of the Ganges. And Jews, although one of the ancient religions of the world, have some more modern places of pilgrimage regrettably associated with ignorance and lack of tolerance rather than enlightenment.










Read about Richard's pilgrimage to Mt Athos in Greece.


PHOTO:
A typical pilgrim's path on Mt Athos - don't bring your wheelie bag.





Maybe the first destination for package pilgrims was Ephesus in Turkey - the ancient Temples there had representatives on other continents to encourage visitors (and they still have!).

Maybe the most curious place of pilgrimage is Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka. On the summit of this mountain is a certain impression which followers of Islam say is the footprint of Adam, the Brahmins say is that of Rama, the Buddhists that of Buddha, the Chinese that of Fu, and the Christians of India know that it is really the footprint of St. Thomas the Apostle. With all these claims to fame it must be a unique place, certainly worthy of a classic backpacking journey whatever your religion.

Do you need to be religious to make a pilgrimage, to be a "classic" backpacker? No, I don't think so. As long as the journey has some significance to you and you do it in an appropriate style (carrying a few personal possessions, staying in low-budget accommodation, and with perhaps a bit of exhaustion), then making your own personal pilgrimage will enable you to claim the title of "classic backpacker".

A track on Mt Athos, Greece

Most of the classic pilgrimage destinations are now packed with packaged tourists. There are tour companies that specialise in "making it easy" (at an appropriate price) for pilgrims to pay homage. These packages lure you to do it the easy way - but to be an honest pilgrim then surely there must be some self-effort in the journey.

Like the Moslems' approach to the Hajj, everyone should do a pilgrimage at least once in his or her life. So plan your own pilgrimage. It may be to an old family heritage, or to some place of wider significance. Maybe it is to a place where you can have some time-out to consider life in general. Whatever your reason and wherever you go, make sure you do it in the classic backpack (or can we say pilgrim) style:

ø  spend your dollars on experiences, not fancy accommodation;
ø  do your own research, don't rely on a tour guide;
ø  throw away the time-table;
ø  walk don't ride, meet the locals.

This way your pilgrimage will be one of life's journeys that you will remember, and you can say with pride . . . .

"I've been backpacking!".


Where is your favourite place of pilgrimage? Tell richard@travelsnapz.com

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Martin Gray is an anthropologist and photographer specializing in the study of sacred sites and pilgrimage traditions around the world. If you are interested in pilgrimages, visit Martin's site.


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