Tag Archives: tradition

Is cheese chasing just good British fun or something more serious?

The hill, if you look closely

The hill, if you look closely

Dangerous, stupid or just a bit of English fun? It’s definitely one of the more bizarre British customs that I’ve come across.

Bad press surrounding the cheese rolling competition held annually in Gloucestershire had seemingly promoted the event. Any publicity is, well, publicity, I guess. Local and international competitors gathered, ready to run a race down a near vertical strip of pitted farmland and claim victory in front of an adoring – and somewhat tipsy – crowd.

Take Kenny Rackers, for example, a 27 year old who travelled over from the US with only one thing on his mind: to win. ‘I came 3,000 or 4,000 miles just for this race,’ he told journalists. ‘I trained a long time for this and got hurt on the hill practising. I came three days early and I took a bad spill, but I came to win.’

Having ambled up along a winding road into what felt like private farmland, I just made it in time for the end of the first race. I nestled my way in to the front of the crowds and there stood Kenny, clad in stars and stripes and holding high the mighty cheese. ‘I came over specially for this and I did what I had to do to win,’ he said. People queued to get pictures. Celebrity cheese chaser. Nice work.



...and finally... Cooper's Hill...

…and finally… Cooper’s Hill…

...and crowds.

…and crowds.

A moment of celebrity

A moment of celebrity

I looked up at the top of the hill, some 200 metres away. Clustered with squatting people, it looked as though they were having to hold on to tufts of grass to avoid falling down. Occasionally someone did. The photos, quite frankly, do not do the steepness justice. Coopers Hill has become infamous for this one day, once a year. The rest of the year, though? Pah. Mountain goats, maybe?

Top of the hill crowds nearly spill over

Top of the hill crowds nearly spill over

I watched the next race, a flurry of tumbling bodies, bouncing bodies. The cheese, replaced this year by a foam replica, hit a chunk of earth and split off to the side. Legs struggled to keep up with downhill momentum, tumbles followed tumbles and tripped others up. At the finish line men walked around dazed, a blend of naked torsos and smudged mud make-up.

And so it repeated and repeated until I watched a man flip and then stop still. He tried to shuffle, but then lifted his leg. His foot stuck out sideways, and a sea of people groaned.

And it's all over when one of one guys does some serious damage

And it’s all over when one of one guys does some serious damage

The free for all downhill scramble

The free for all downhill scramble

Home time?

Home time?

The crowd, revved on a good dose of bystander adrenaline and cider blur, started to disperse to the tune of an ambulance siren. Paramedics brought out the stretcher and the health and safety boohoos rubbed their hands in delight with the ammunition newly granted to them.

Another victory for sensibility over tradition? Let’s hope not. At least the grandmother who had until this year provided the cheese could rest assured that the police wouldn’t be knocking on her door, again. ‘They threatened me, saying I would be wholly responsible if anyone got injured,’ she told the Telegraph days before the event.

Yet the appeal of the event doesn’t seem to be fading. Thousands of people still climbed up to Coopers Hill to watch the somersaults, and plenty of people still entered the competition knowing full well the dangers involved. Like the running of the tar barrels in Ottery St Mary, this event has associated risks. What’s wrong with the competitors taking some responsibility for themselves?

So is it dangerous, stupid or just a bit of fun? Quirky, sure. I’ll go with that.


Filed under activity & sport, culture, europe, food & drink, random, uk

Why won’t you give me a Māori moko?

I have for years ummed and ahhed about getting a tattoo. ‘Are you really sure?’ asked my mother when I told her that if I was going to get one whilst in New Zealand. With its Māori myths and history of tattooing, it seemed to be the logical and most honest choice. She was worried that I would regret it, wanted me to give it a proper think through. But that’s what mums do, right? Needless to say, I wasn’t angling for the facial Ta Moko, which on women was traditionally on their chin. I tried to imagine a future job interview with one of those.


Female Ta Moko (http://mypacificstory.com)

My research into the rituals and legends of Māori culture and tattooing started in Raglan, where I discovered the story of Mataora who was banished from the underworld for treating his wife badly, and told that his mission was to introduce ‘the art of tattooing to the world’ (1).

The first man who was actually tattooed is said to have been Tama (Tama-nui-a-Raki) whose wife ran off with another man. Feeling that this abandonment was a result of his own physical ugliness, he managed to persuade his ancestors to tattoo him, despite them telling him that the ‘the pain was as bad as death’. But he was adamant that they should ink him and it is said that ‘when his wounds healed, he found that he was handsome’. A somewhat happy ending, one would think, that may have resulted in the reunion of the couple (if his wife was really that shallow)? Nope. Legend says that he ended up killing his wife. I’m still trying to work out the morals of that story.

My own reason for wanting a tattoo was to mark a significant moment in my life: adventuring on my own, turning 30, and leaving behind the secure life that I had built up in the UK. This aspect fits with the idea of Māori tattooing which is linked to ‘rites of passage and important events in a person’s life’.

Making oneself attractive to the opposite sex is often cited as another reason that Māoris would decorate themselves, but this wasn’t my motivation. In fact, my own experiences tell me that many guys find tattoos on girls quite unattractive and when I discussed with some friends where on the body to get a tattoo, one guy simply said ‘don’t get a tramp stamp’, the popular bottom of the back marking. (I actually happen to think they look quite nice there. If tattooing is as addictive as people say, then maybe that’s where I’ll get my next one).

Māori tattoos typically tell a family and life story and have been used to identify the tribe to which they belong. I had read that some Māoris feel insulted that non-Māoris are tattooing themselves with Māori designs, that it is considered inappropriate.

When I asked Whetu of Westcoast Tattoos, New Plymouth, what his thoughts were on tattooing me, he was direct. ‘What I’m doing for you isn’t a true moko’, he said. Further research told me that it could be classed kirituhi  – not a moko but a tattoo ‘inspired by Māori design. I appreciated his honesty. I had been warned that there could be a few cowboys out there who would spin a yarn and draw me into some flawed and diluted historical context just to get the custom.

Traditional Māori art was kept to black, red and white; my tattoo would just be black. I wanted something modest. No faces or overly distinguishable shapes, just something simple incorporating typical Māori sprials (2). And I wanted it to flow. What Whetu decided to do for me was based on a koru spiral design that mimics the unfolding of ferns, a much more generic starting point which I had already seen in various forms on a few other people. And actually the koru was perfect for me, representing new life, regeneration, personal growth, strength and peace. A good choice. Thank you Whetu.


Underway and feeling okay in Westcoast Tattoos, New Plymouth

Having decided that I wanted it on my hip, Whethu drew the design free hand based on the shape of my body and my own likes and dislikes. The needling part prickled like a repeated mini bee stings but it came nowhere close to Tama’s experience, which is said to have been ‘long and terribly painful’ and where ‘he often fainted’ (1). There was no moto (blood) and at no point did I feel ānini (dizzy) (3). Whethu was gentle and skilful.

I wouldn’t say that it was a spiritual experience, but then I hadn’t gone through the whole process of fasting and preparation and other associated rituals, and ultimately my moko wasn’t and couldn’t be the real deal. But it wasn’t without spiritual significance and I found loveliness in the statement that a moko will help carry a person ‘ into any challenge, any task, and into a life fulfilled with a culture of their own’.

Whenever I look down at my new Māori inspired tattoo, I will remember this time in my life: the challenges and adventures and space to grow, the highs and the lows. One Māori saying reads: Taia o moko hei hoa matenga mou meaning Take your moko as a friend for life. I shall.

Sources: (1) Māori Myth and Legend, Orbell (2007), p111; (2) Māori Carving, Phllipps (1948); (3) He Pā Auroa A Dictionary and Language Guide for Students of Māori, Cormack (2001)


Filed under culture, new zealand, random

Hanging out with the Hare Krishnas

I was in the kitchen with Druva, a young and well-travelled Colombian monk. We were preparing lunch – a feast of vegetarian food – for the other community inhabitants and volunteers. I had been prepped on proper kitchen conduct, which included never tasting the food (the first mouthful is for Krishna himself) and washing my mouth thoroughly with water before re-entering the kitchen if I had left the room to have a drink.

This was Finca Vrindavan, a little ashram based near Rio Negro, Ecuador (along the route from Baños to Tena) set in an isolated, lush, tropical setting. With focus on vedic philosophy, bhakti yoga and ecological principles, this place sounded like a perfect stop off from the backpacker trail.

You do know it’s a Hare Krishna place’, said the hostel owner before I left from Baños. I had guessed it would be. Whenever I had researched yoga ashrams in South America, they seemed to be run by Hare Krishna devotees. An older Canadian woman was concerned that I was going to be brainwashed by a forceful cult. ‘Aren’t you worried?’ she asked me. I wasn’t. I was curious and happy to go and do yoga in the jungle with some interesting people.

Arriving in Rio Negro, I was approached by Druva (Peruvian Druva, not Colombian monk Druva… I know, it’s confusing!), a gentle and welcoming character who shared a taxi ride up to the finca along with Rachel, an American resident of the community. Also going by the name Vrindavan Jardin Ecologico, this place has a few simple, pretty, wooden houses and a temple dotted around what feels like a bit of a spiritual, eco village.

Inside one of the huts up some stairs was my room. It was basic: a bunk bed, a wooden shelf, a window with a missing pane. Things felt a bit tired and unkempt. I learned that this estate was under a state of regeneration and repair; the dust in the buildings and vast blankets of weeds on the ground were confirmation of this.

The first evening I decided to go along to the 6:00pm ceremony which started with kirtan, a call-and-response chanting led by Colombian Druva, the rest of the attendees clapping and playing various instruments. We sat on a floor of woven reed mats in front of a decorative shrine with an ornately crafted wooden frame whilst Druva sang from a homemade pulpit style set-up.

Following on from this, he rang a bell and chanted in front of the altar, addressing the Krishna deity directly, before drawing the heavy red curtains and retreating to the side and deciding on the night time clothing for the statue. Whilst the rest of us sang along with an accordion style pull and push instrument, Colombian Druva disappeared behind the curtain to change the clothes and then gently placed the idol of Krishna into a crib. I found the attention and care given to this process, if I’m honest, quite bizarre, but then my own agnosticism and ignorance to this religious strand won’t have helped.

The final part of the ceremony involved Peruvian Druva reading from the Bhagavad-gita, an extended activity due to the constant translations from Sanscrit into Spanish and English. It was interesting, focusing primarily on the beliefs associated with karma. The analogy of carrying a ‘backpack’ of suffering through life was used to highlight how we each can truly feel the immediate effects of karma, but that by behaving with love and consideration for others (and not the self) we can lighten this heavy load. I also liked the concept that full renunciation of the modern world and materialism was not a prescription of the teachings, but rather that working with and using what you do have as a way to reach out to others is hugely effective.

So, back to the cooking. I had opted to help out in the kitchen whilst some others laboured away in the garden, clearing weeds and revealing streams and creating pathways. The change in that little section of the garden was incredible. It proved that with more help and perseverance, this place could be restored to its former glory. There were, however, a few grumbles from a few volunteers about the usefulness of some of the activities and who felt that more purposeful and structured work was needed.

Finca Vrindavan definitely isn’t a place that will suit everyone. The Hare Krishna element is not compulsory and there is no push to make you into a believer, so hopefully the religious part shouldn’t put people off of coming along to visit or volunteer. The 7:00am yoga session was a great way to start the day and re-inspired my own practice, but for some it was just too early. The communal dining was social but difficult unless your level of Spanish was proficient. The accommodation was pretty primitive and let in all manner of bugs (including funky fireflies that flash around on the walls and ceiling at night) and mini midgelike insects with the  itchiest of bites.

And cost is likely to be a sticking point for some. Paying  $12 per day (food and lodging included) to volunteer your time and effort is  something that can seem strange, but then most volunteering in South America carries with it a cost. Weigh it up and make your choice.

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Filed under ecuador, south america, volunteering