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The hotel where I stayed in Damanhur appeared to have a broken cuckoo clock.  It cuckooed twice around 8:15 (I assumed it would go off once for the first quarter-hour) and then twice again around 8:25.  When it went off three more times a couple of minutes later, I realized that what I was hearing was an actual cuckoo.  I can say that the cuckoo does a more or less perfect job of imitating a cuckoo clock.  :-)  But seriously, the fact that old-school mechanical clock designers managed to capture the cuckoo sound perfectly with a mechanical contraption is impressive. 

Many things in the world are known to most people only by their derivative works.  These derivative works load us up with all kinds of preconceptions that can lead to interesting results when we encounter the original
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One of the most fascinating aspects of my visit to Damanhur was seeing a religious system in its early growth phase. Many of the founders are still alive, though some have died and been enshrined in the temple. The legends of their works are still known firsthand by some, but the knowledge is being passed on and reformatted for consumption in various forms: storybooks for children, temple paintings, stories told to tour groups etc. The tour guide joked that they were leaving all kinds of curiosities for future historians to study and puzzle over.* I can imagine dropping in on other religions during their early years and seeing many of the same patterns emerge as reality becomes legend and a power structure grows to deal with the complexities of managing the religion.

The Damanhurians are well aware of the dangers of growing too fast and are making efforts to ensure that their growth is sustainable. They want to reach out and help the world but not aggressively proselytize.

I learned a couple of months ago that Islam grew faster than any other world religion during its infancy, with hundreds of thousands of followers during Mohammed's lifetime. This left a massive power vacuum upon Mohammed's death, and the Shiite/Sunni division happened over an argument between various relatives of Mohammed over who would take over as caliph. They've been fighting over it for 1300 years even though differences in belief are minimal. The original populist spirit of Islam – a personal submission to Allah that could be practiced alone – was lost as a massive religious-bureaucratic complex became the middleman between the human and the divine.

*The main founder painted one of the rooms himself and did not (and still does not) bother to explain the significance of it – it's written in a vast array of different languages and is full of cryptic diagrams. It's either the deepest of his esoteric work or a massive prank.
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Today I checked out a very different, very modern sort of religious monument – Damanhur.

I first read about Damanhur in the New York Times a couple of years back. The basic backstory is that in the late 1970s a spiritually-oriented intentional community formed near Torino, Italy. The community decided to keep a low profile, but they had grand ambitions. The result of this conflicting goal and restraint was a massive and stunning underground temple complex built deep under the house of their leader. It's a maze of hidden passageways and enormous common rooms, and it's over 180 feet deep in parts. They managed to keep it secret for over 20 years in a nosy small town, and it was only discovered by the authorities when a disgruntled member blackmailed them. The authorities, typical incompetent bureaucrats, ordered its immediate destruction due to numerous building code violations and lack of building permits. Eventually, they came to their senses and realized they had a huge tourist windfall on their hands.

I'm less spiritual than most people, but I have enjoyed seeing what the various religions of the world have to offer. My tour guide told me that they don't see Damanhur as a religion – it's a way of life. I'd argue that Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam etc are also ways of life if done properly and not merely as window dressing.

They requested I not take pictures, and for once I was okay with that, given that my tour would have taken twice as long if I were snapping away. Their reason for me not taking pictures was also reasonable -- they wanted me to take in the sight/sound experience deeply on my first visit so that the place would make a deep impression on me..

Here's what I learned about Damanhurians and the values of their way of life / religion:

- Independent thought: Damanhurians are encouraged to think for themselves and make informed decisions about their beliefs.
- The importance of Games. They see the human experience as a nested set of games, and encourage the use of games for teaching purposes and social experimentataion. The children play a game akin to Risk but with far more complicated and changing rules. Other games have involved yearlong epic art battles, survivalist romps in the wilderness, and giving the teenagers a house of their own to run and manage when they were complaining of too much parental conteol. Games are important enough that there's a whole floor of one of the temples devoted to them.
- God is within you and everywhere, and is reached through personal excellence: People are encouraged to develop their talents to their greatest extent as it brings out the divine nature within them. Instead of worshipping a creator, they worship the world, its life forms, and the talent within themselves as human beings. One of the most striking temples depicts masculine and feminine creative energies triumphing over destructive forces.
- Universal participation: In Damanhur, there are no followers. Everyone is a part of forming the belief system and creating the temples. All members create a sculptured clay likeness of themselves to be placed in the temple complex. The styles vary dramatically, as you might imagine, and it humanizes the temple experience.
- Embracing change: Damanhurian philosophy stresses that the world will change, and their belief system must change as well. Not only should they accept change, but actively seek it out. One example the guide gave is how the group has changed from very closed to very open and from a communal economy to a mix of common and private possessions. To me this contrasts strongly with religions that hold on to very old beliefs that seem outdated (at least to me) from a modern perspective, such as seeing menstruating women as unclean or completely avoiding certain kinds of meat.
- Keeping a sense of humor: The temples are filled with in-jokes, puns, and goofy secret passageways. People are encouraged to not take themselves or their work too seriously.
- Tolerance of other religions: One of the shrines depicts and celebrates the variety of the world's religious traditions.
And what I didn't like... )
Maybe I should design a religion. I've got some ideas.  Most atheists just point out how ridiculous and destructive religions can be, but don't propose alternatives that would serve the spiritual needs that most people satisfy with their religious beliefs.  If you want to successfully convert people, you have to use a carrot, not just a stick.
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On advice of a fellow Milan hostel-goer, I checked out what may be some of the best gelato in Itally. They had a small but excellent range of flavors, including an extra dark chocolate that actually lived up to Matt standards of extra dark. The best part was that the server suggested a pairing – I had three scoops and had chosen the extra dark chocolate and a lemon flavor. Before I could pick a third flavor, he suggested the ginger, and it worked extremely well as a mix. Chocolate-lemon-ginger happiness for the reasonable price of 3 euros.

If any of you find yourselves in Italy soon, the chain is called Grom. They now have locations in several major cities.

For kick-ass gelato back home, there's always Naia.
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My first couchsurfing.com stay was in Bergamo, a small city a little northeast of Milan. Bergamo isn't even mentioned by Lonely Planet Western Europe, so I was at the mercy of my excellent couchsurfing host. He gave me a thorough tour of the old city on the hill, including a fantastic church that's pure MC Escher on the outside and hardcore Roccoco on the inside. He also took me to a fantastic dinner, which is described in more detail in my lard entry.

Couchsurfing is hard work. You have to send out a lot of well-written and personalized requests to get a single positive response. Many hosts are inundated with several requests a day, so it's kind of like an online dating site – you have to stand out and catch them at the right time. However, when it works well, it's amazing. You're rewarded with the chance to deeply interact with a local and get an inside sense for the city they live in.

Go see Bergamo before too many people like me talk about it. As of now, it's a good place to have a chill and untouristy Italian experience. It isn't about the big monuments, it's about the atmosphere.
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I ended up spending a night in Milan due to a train schedule issue. Lonely Planet goes out of its way to take a dump on Milan as a tourist destination, but I found it quite interesting for the half-day I wandered around. It's a lively city with a good metro system, nice parks and museums, and an environmental consciousness that included hordes of Prius taxis and lots of bike rental stations. Milan was also much more multiracial than I expected – it was interesting to see Vietnamese couples chattering to one another in Italian. People walked around with poise but not the exagerrated swagger like I remember seeing in other parts of the country.

I was however disheartened to discover that the giant bug-eye sunglasses are still very popular there, which means they'll probably be popular in the San Francisco area until at least 2013. The fashions in general were not too shocking or different, though I noticed that a lot of women over 40 tended to have very artificial-looking blond hair and overdone raccoon eye makeup.

Amusingly, I was the only male guest out of 13 or so at the hostel. Guys aren't so interested (generally speaking) in hitting up major fashion centers.

-----

Unrelated:

A note to hostel owners out there. It is not a good idea to let guests use your personal computer to download porn. WinPC Defender does not defend your PC against anything except you.
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The latest in my long list of food discoveries on ths trip is lard. It turns out that gourmet lard is actually quite good and has a texture not too dissimilar from high-end fatty sushi like Toro. The restaurant in Bergamo (Italy) that my couchsurfing host took me to served the lard as a thin slice wrapped around a sprig of rosemary. It was a nice pairing.

The overall feast was sumptuous in an epic sort of way, with many different types of cheeses, cured meats, and baked meats to try. It turns out that Coppa can be quite nice if done right and that baked uncured proscuitto tastes like soft ham.
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Phase shifting.

When I was 18 and spending a summer running around Europe, I enjoyed the shock value of taking night trains between Switzerland and Italy so much that I did so several times. The stereotypes of Switzerland and Italy are cultural polar opposites in just about every way – clean/dirty, organized/disorganized, reserved/gregarious, low corruption / high corruption, secretive / wide open, uptight/laidback. It's a social transition, though there are certainly visual elements to it.

This time, I did the train ride during the day. The scenery was absolutely stunning, as the Swiss more or less constantly had to either use bridges or tunnels for a good 200km of the route. I sat, patiently waiting to slide across the Swiss/Italian continuum. It ended up being somewhat discontinuous. At Lugano, a city that at least from the train rivaled Santorini in natural beauty, a gaggle of Italian speakers entered the train and it was instantly livened up, much to the chagrin of the curmudgeonly British vacationers across from me. (They're going to Florence. Good luck with that.)

So a few days later I went back to check out this little transition point. For you bay area folk, Lugano is like an Italian version of Sausalito, run efficiently by the Swiss, and with much more mountainous terrain. (For the rest of you, Sausalito is a pricey but cute and chill seaside town across the bridge from San Francisco) It's balmy enough that palm trees can grow naturally here, lending the plae a vaguely tropical feel. It's quite possibly the best of both worlds... Italian food and liveliness with Swiss beauty and efficiency.

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February 2011

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