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Sunday, 1 February 2015

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Whole town under one roof

Begich Towers is the 14-storey condominium on the edge of the Alaskan town of Whittier: Believe it or not all the 200-odd residents in this small town live here under one roof. The former Army barracks is often described as a “vertical town” with walls so thin that keeping secrets is simply out of the question.

Whittier town is rather inaccessible - you can only get there by sea or take a long one line tunnel through the mountains which only runs one way at any given time. At night the tunnel is closed completely.

This town spans a thin three-mile crescent of coastline between mountain and water. The weather can get pretty brutal in the remote town, with winds reaching up to 60 mph and snowfall up to 250 inches. It actually makes sense that the residents of Whittier have everything they need under one roof. The place has a strange intimacy about it - residents can be spotted shuffling about the building in slippers and pyjamas, even when on official business. At any hour, a resident can knock on the door of the police chief, and students can get help at a teacher’s kitchen table.

Apart from residential apartments, the one-of-a-kind settlement also houses a police station, a health clinic, a convenience store, a laundromat, and a church in the basement.

It really is inconceivable how missionaries, bartenders, city council members, policemen, and even drug dealers can co-exist in the same building, share the same facilities, and ride in the same elevator.

And believe it or not, they even have room to accommodate tourists! Resident June Miller owns and runs a bed-and-breakfast on the building’s top two floors. The comfortable rooms are all equipped with binoculars, so tourists get to watch ‘whales breaching and mountain goats grazing’, and stuff like that.

Although Begich Towers resembles a school, the only thing it doesn’t house is a school. The children in the community attend school in a building located behind the tower. And because of the brutal weather, there’s only one way for them to get to school. You guessed it - an underground tunnel!

Founded in 1969, nine years after the Army moved out, Whittier was built from scratch by the few hundred civilians who chose to stay behind. They continued the operation of freight, railroad and oil storage facilities, occupying infrastructure that was meant for a thousand. They set to work creating a new town for themselves; they dreamed of creating the first car-less town in America, with trams that would carry visitors over the mountain. In fact, their motto was: “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Whittier.”


No females - both human as well as animals

Dressed in long black robes that signify their death from the outside world monks living in Mount Athos formally known as Autonomous Monastic state of th Holy Mountain, located on the Greek peninsula of Halkidiki, spend every minute of their day praying or reflecting in silence.The sole purpose of these monks of Mount Athos is to become closer to God; they practice a life of strict celibacy.

Although technically apart of the European Union, the Holy Mountain is largely self-governed. This prohibits the free movement of people and goods in its territory, unless formal permission has been granted. As a result, a number of traditions at Mount Athos might seem odd to people outside. The keeping of Byzantine time, for instance, means that their day begins at sunset. But perhaps their most bizarre practice is the centuries-old ban on women entering the sacred peninsula.

For over 1,000 years, women have been forbidden from setting foot on the mountain. In fact, females of other species such as cows, dogs and goats aren’t permitted either. Only birds and insects are exempted from the rule - scanning the skies and grounds for female body parts would surely be too absurd, even by Mount Athos standards.

Only men, particularly those of a calm and pious demeanour, are permitted to visit Mount Athos, attend church services, dine with the monks and perhaps even stay overnight at one of the monasteries. The only way female visitors can view the hills and ancient monasteries is from a distance, while on a boat tour.

According to the monks, the complete absence of women from the mountain makes their chosen lifestyle easier to practice. They seem to strongly believe that women could drastically alter the dynamics of their society, which is delicately designed to take them towards spiritual enlightenment.

The monastic traditions of the mountain date back to 800 A.D. and the Byzantine era. Today, it is home to 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries, and 2,000 monks from Greece and other eastern orthodox countries such as Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia. These monks live an ascetic life, isolated from the rest of the world.

Interestingly, the only female influence accepted and even revered by the monks of Athos is the Virgin Mary.

Local legend tells us that the Mother of Christ was sailing along one day, when a storm blew her ship towards Mount Athos. Once ashore, she began to impart the teachings of Christianity, and had soon converted every person on the peninsula.

Years later, the monks started having visions of Mary, so they devoted their lives to her cause.

It is speculated that they did not want other women to ‘outshine’ the Lady of Angels, so they simply banned all females from the region. Indeed, the picture of the Virgin Mary is the only female presence in all of Athos, and the only woman the monks choose to lay their eyes upon.


Cerebral palsy couldn’t block her spirit

Tweny-one-year old Hu Huiyan from China’s Anhui province, born prematurely, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was only 10 months old. This left her permanently paralysed - the only parts of her body she could move were her head and the left foot.’

Although she was in a state of paralysis her spirit was alive and fighting. As she grew older, she learned how to perform everyday tasks using her foot.

Believe it or not Hu her only functional foot to write not just a few sentences, but an entire fiction novel!

Despite not having received formal education, Hu is surprisingly well-spoken. Over the years, with the help of her mother, she taught herself to read and write. “I’m not a genius, but I’m very focused,” she said, modestly. “When I watched TV in my childhood, I often learned words with subtitles.”

With time, Hu’s language skills got so proficient that she set out to write a story about the pursuit of dreams and love. She’s doing this by typing out every single word on her computer using only one foot. She has to target the specific keys she wants, move her foot towards the keyboard, and press it down with all her strength. Her body is fastened to a wheelchair while she’s typing, to keep her stable. In spite of all these setbacks, Hu is able to type 20 to 30 words a minute. She has already written six chapters - that’s 60,000 words - and says she only has two more chapters to go before the novel is complete.

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