Friday, 16 July 2010

Decisions, decisions

It's been a while since I last blogged. That's not because I have had nothing to say or tell you about. It's had more to do with my internal processes and thinking.

I've been looking back on where I've been, the people I've met, the experiences I've had and most of all the two amazing countries, India and Uganda that I've been to.

It's a continuing wonder to me that human beings from different cultures are so similar and so very very different. We all started from the same place, just a few hundred miles from where I'm sitting right now, yet Nature and evolution has worked on us to create different skin colours, facial differences and physiques to enable us to survive in different places around the world. But on top of Nature's work lies layer upon layer of humanity's own development work, religions, colonial domination and most recently, the money driven Western culture-based economic model that shapes us now.

The similarities and differences between Uganda and India are many. The superficial differences like the lack of continual honking of car horns in Uganda that dominate the roads and cities of India, the more laid back attitude of the Ugandans and the open, Western dress of the women as opposed to the more traditional dress of Indian women are what immediately show up.

The roads in both countries are full of potholes. In the cities of both countries, the roads are dominated by cars, motorbikes and public transport, auto-rickshaws in India and 15 seat mini-buses in Uganda. Both are developing their infrastructure and roads. India's economy is growing faster because of its size and influence and its world markets. Uganda's economy is more reliant on Africa and Europe. Somehow this seems more inclusive whereas India's economic boom seems to me to be devisive amongst its people.

Both countries share a history of British colonialism and have kept the education and administrative systems imposed upon them. Both are democracies. But in Uganda, western Christianity has become the dominant religion whereas in India it never really took hold. This seems to me to be the reason for the fundamental cultural differences between the two countries.

The bombings in Kampala have had the same reactions as happened in London. People are very wary, phoning the police if they see a lonely pastic bag. Security in the city centre is highly visible. The papers carry warnings of more bombings to come. There is a lot of criticism of the security services failing to pick up many warnings of potential bombings because of corruption and internal jealousies. Most of the warnings have been aimed at the African Union Conference that starts in Kampala next week.

The bombings shook me up mainly because I am a stranger in this country, don't know my way around and how people will react.

But what binds both India and Uganda is the extraordinary kindness, friendliness, understanding and willingness to discuss and talk that I have experienced from people in both countries. I will never forget Alex who helped me find a seat in the stadium in Kampala to watch the World Cup Final and who insisted on coming back with me to my guest house to ensure I was safe after the bombings. And the woman in the local shop who reminded me not to flash the money in my wallet. 'I want you safe!' she said.

I set out on this trip to give myself some time to review what I was going to do next, to get to know India and Africa better, to find out more about organic farming and the effects of the 'Green Revolutions' and to have time just for me. I gave myself six months to do this but after two and a half months I feel I've discovered enough to want to review my thoughts in the comparative cold light of the UK. So, I've booked a flight home on Sunday to do that just with family and friends and will take whatever time and space I need to ensure I have it right.

Small steps before the big ones.

Thank you to everyone who has followed the blog. This may or may not be the last post. Watch this space!

Monday, 12 July 2010

Kampala bomb blasts

A quick note to let you know that I'm ok.

One of the bombs has gone off close to my guesthouse. Sadly a friend has lost two of her colleagues in the blasts. It really brings it home.

I'm watching the FCO travel advice.

I'll resume the blogs again soon.

Friday, 2 July 2010


I'm having lunch today in a small, basic restaurant on one of Mysore's main streets. Sitting outside, cross-legged on the pavement is an elderly white-haired woman. She is dressed in a simple orange and fawn coloured kurta. In front of her is a large, round, shallow wicker basket from which she takes jasmine flowers and, knitting with her fingers, creates garlands for other women to put in their hair.

People walk past her. Some stop by her to chat with each other. With nothing more than an occasional glance, she lives her gentle life, earning a few rupees a day. I have no idea if she has a family, a husband. But the aspirations of the new India are passing her by.

And I wonder if it matters.

She gets on with her work, her life and others around her, me included, get on with ours. She does not appear to strive for success or power or money. She sits, present in the moment, focused on stringing her flowers, surrounded by the scent of jasmine.

What could make her happier? The chances are she doesn't read or write. Does she miss great literature and music? If she could read would she be more content? Quite likely. If she had a new sari would she feel better about herself? Possibly. If she had the money to buy the new iPod, would that complete her life? No way.

I'm making a huge assumption here but I reckon she's content as she is.

And I wonder what makes her content, happy even? Certainly not striving for bigger and better. The same things as me? To live in the moment, to love and be loved, to trust and be trusted, to give and be given, to hold and be held, to respect and be respected, to share a good wine, a cheese, bread, to share a life with family and friends and to love with physical and mental connections, to talk and laugh and cry together? I suspect she needs little else herself except perhaps a better education.

Someone is buying the garland she has just woven. She smiles.

And just what is this great economic miracle providing that is passing her by? Great art, music and literature? No. That bottle of wine, cheese and bread? No. Love and loving, friendship and laughter? No. They all exist without it.

So, what is it really for? To enable those who want to push the boundaries of humankind's need to know, to control, to discover, striving for the next frontier? And when that is found, what next? Do we just go on and on until our planet and ourselves are worn out, burnt out? Why?

Someone has bought another garland. She smiles again. She has enough. And so do I.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Teaching, cheese and massage

For every evil in India, whether it be in education, corruption or the greed for power and money, there is a good. Maybe it's not a full counter-balance but it's there.

On Friday, my flatmate Stephen invited me to run an afternoon workshop on developing partnerships for a course he's running for marketing in NGOs. The students are postgrads, all of whom want to work in NGOs. The nine students, seven women and two men are bright, articulate, keen to learn and above all committed to working for the good of their communities.

I started by getting them to discuss the nature of partnerships, why NGOs needed them, who with and the actions needed to ensure they could run smoothly and meet agreed aims. I then split them into three groups of three, each group being responsible for developing an outline plan for attracting and developing relevant partnerships for an NGO working with the environment, another with children and the third with animals.

Their presentations were thoughtful and clear but what intrigued me was that each of them concentrated on partnerships they would NOT have; government because it was corrupt, corporates because the were corrupt and wealthy individuals because they were mostly corrupt. One of the students in the discussion that followed, said that his charity would have to pay bribes because their money would not otherwise come through or at best be very slow if they were funded by government. I challenged him on this. Wasn't he part of the corrupt system himself? Wasn't his NGO part of the problem? He looked startled and shrugged. 'It's what happens.'

It made me angry and I laid into him. As a future leader of NGOs, he should be working to ensure that every NGO has written into its constitution that they would NOT pay bribes. If he and others stood together and kicked and screamed and shouted publicly, getting local and national publicity, reporting the bribe takers, surely he and they could help to rid India of this cancer. Someone, somewhere has to stand against it and a lot of people are. Many of the newspapers and magazines carry highly critical articles on politicians and business people. Surely it is this generation that needs to develop that fight. We had a meeting of minds. They knew they needed to take action. Let's hope that they do.

Earlier in the week, I met Sham Sundar who was working at the National Institute of Engineering in Mysore, heading up the Centre for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technologies. His passion for his subject was palpable and he introduced me to Chida Shivanna a Mysorian who had set up a successful IT software business in Mysore and Seattle. Chida was passionate about cheese and India has practically no cheese other than paneer.
Using much of Sham's technologies, especially in building, he has set up an organic dairy farm a few miles outside Mysore on which he is creating a cheese making plant where visitors will be able to watch the processes and learn about different cheeses.

He is trying to persuade his neighbouring farmers to become organic but they are frightened that their yields will drop even though their soil is now dead and they are having to pay more and more for even more chemicals. The grass yields Chida is getting through organic methods may yet persuade them. In time.

Yesterday I had lunch with two friends, Payal and Sanjay. Payal runs Go Wild, a small NGO working with children in schools to help them to learn about the wildlife around them and the importance of biodiversity and the environment. Sanjay is an environmentalist, the Deputy Director of Zoo Outreach Organisation ( and Founder Editor of The Journal of Threatened Taxa ( They had just returned from Nagaland, a state in north-east India where they had been working with villagers to help them understand why they should stop the killing of all their wildlife for meat. They have beautiful forests but there are no birds in them. They have all been killed.

After our lunch, I decided to treat myself to a massage. Ayurvedic massage is a Mysore speciality. I had been recommended a place to go to. The building was somewhat run-down but that's ok....small cubicles for consultations, plastic chairs, rather dirty looking sliding doors. I paid my 500 rupees for an all-over body massage and steam bath and followed the masseur up three flights of stairs to a small room with a well-oiled massage table and a box into which I was supposed to squeeze myself for the steam bath. I got undressed, no modesty towels here. For those of you, dear readers, with a squeamish mind, look away now.

Ayurvedic massage is done with special oils....lots and lots and lots of oil. I was pummelled and pushed and rubbed back and front for 45 minutes, feeling like a slippery eel. Every time he pummelled me, I slid up and down the table. Let's just say that it was somewhat stimulating and move on to the steam bath.

The steamer is a box which you sit in with your head sticking out of the top. The steam for this box is provided by a plastic pipe connected to a pressure cooker on a one-ring gas burner. No sophisticated technology here. It was scary but efficient and I was duly steamed alive. For fifteen minutes. Never was a cold shower so welcome.

I have booked my flight to Uganda for July 8th.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Education, corruption and money

One of the great joys of experiencing a new culture, a new place, is that practically every conversation I have is with a new, different person who brings their own perspective to the views and opinions I have formed myself and gleaned from others.

Three things seem to dominate conversations. That may be of course because I ask about them, but many thoughts and opinions are volunteered.

The first is education in India. Practically everyone I talk to is in despair at the standard of state run schools, especially in the North and East. I heard horror stories when I was in Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh. The standard of teachers is low and all of them are terrified that the children will not pass their exams. If this doesn't happen they are sacked and sent to another school in the back of beyond. So they show the answers to the children before they sit the exams and even then if they don't reach the pass mark of 30%(!), they give the children a certificate to say they have passed. The children therefore leave school with certificates but little or no real knowledge and think that the way to succeed in life is to cheat. They apply for jobs and are amazed that employers don't take them on when it's discovered they can't read, write or do basic maths.

The second is corruption. Everyone says that corruption is endemic here from the little favours that are asked for to do a small job or provide a certificate to the very top of Government. Even if all this isn't true, there's a belief that it is and therefore it might as well be true. It's a cancer that is preventing a properly functioning society and despite India being the largest democracy in the world, whichever political party comes to power, it makes little difference to the levels of corruption. It's like the education. Cheating and buying favours is what people have been taught to do.

The third is money. The last two generations since Gandhi's death have set money as the goal, the be all and end all, the one thing to strive for in life. As in practically every country, this is fuelled by television which shows the latest gadgetry and instant comfort available if only this or that product is bought. It's short term gain of money that matters. And if you can get it without working and by cheating then that's the way to do it.

There are of course those who fight against this and there are many of them. But there is a sense of despair that it is too late, that the cancer has caught hold and all that can be done is to await the inevitable end.

What comes after the fire has burnt out is the critical thing. Thankfully there are many people here and around the world innovatively developing different ways of living with values that are based on long-term, sustainable, holistic growth, where the short-term fix is anathema. It's difficult to know whether to hope that the fire starts soon and we can go through the crisis and move on or we live with what we have as well and for as long as we can, getting whatever comfort is available.

I want to correct one thing from a previous post. The Indian government has now repealed the old British law making homosexuality illegal. However, individual States can still have their own banning regulations.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Racing from Mysore

Mysore has a racecourse on its outskirts which couples up with the golf club but today it was all horses and jockeys and thousands of people intent, not on watching the horses on the track but on the television screens that filled the central area and where the bookies make their money.

There is no alcohol on sale, just snacks and chai but it is the betting that dominates and seems to be all the race-goers are interested in. Opposite the finishing post there are two stands, one for members and one for trainers and owners.

I've paid to be a member for the day.

It is only here that the races are actually watched but even so there is little cheering or people jumping up and down in excitement. It's a muted affair. The going is good and the oval racecourse too. There are eight races on the card, each race with eight or nine horses and riders. The first race starts promptly at 2pm with music announcing the start of the race more suitable to the Raj.

Horses and riders are urged and pushed and pulled into the stalls and they're off!! The race commentator keeps us all up to date and the television screens show the horses coming closer and closer. The favourite is fourth but with a burst of speed takes the lead and wins the race by a nose. Right in front of my nose. From my horse.

I get my revenge. A beautiful, sleek filly with a long mane of hair and fire and life in her eyes called Feel My Heart is in the next race. I watch her as she parades around the ring and she fixes me with her eyes. That's where my money is going. Everything I've brought. I know we'll win together. She canters past the stand I'm watching from on the way to the start and I'm sure she winks. We're ok. We'll do it.

The race starts far away. The commentator makes no mention of her. What has happened? Did she fail to start? She's there. Tucked in on the rails lying fifth. She's moving easily, confidently. Three furlongs to go. Still no move. I yell. FEEL MY HEART!! She responds and surges towards me waiting for her at the winning post. She's ahead, free of the pack, in my arms....oops ok...that last bit wasn't true. But the rest was and the bookie gives me a knowing grin as I take his money.

I'd take her out to dinner tonight with the winnings if only I could.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Jazz on a Monsoon Eve

Last night I went with my flatmate Stephen to see a live jazz band, the Maarten Visser Trio. Saxophone, drums and an electric stringed something that transformed itself from a violin to double bass and all points in between.

The venue was a second floor night club, reminiscent of the 70's with rock icons in big montages round the walls. The event had been sponsored by Alliance Francais and it had a strangely Parisian feel, like a smokey, dark, intimate club on the Left Bank. The clientel here however were mainly Mysore's young media set, all western clothes and strappy bare shoulders, definitely not what you see on the streets. A group of gay men were letting whatever hair they had down. Sadly homosexuality is still officially illegal in India.

The music was modern, sultry, moving from long, lingering longing to fast intricate, surprises carefully and freely improvised by the saxophonist who switched easily from tenor to soprano sax, the audience very appreciative and involved.

The band played for about two hours and left. On came the video rock bands on big screens, loud and head banging, Guns 'n' Roses, Jethro Tull and the one and only amazing AC/DC with Highway to Hell.

Outside, the moonsoon was building as the auto rickshaw staggered us home through Mysore's deserted late night streets.

In a few days it will be here full on.

Thursday, 10 June 2010


I've already written about the vagaries of travel in India so I won't add more to what is already a full picture. I will merely say that the twin-prop plane was cancelled, I bribed my way onto a train to Delhi which took 10 hours, my flight the next day to Bangalore was delayed by three hours and I finally got back to Mysore at 11.30 pm after setting over the previous day at 9am. Enough already.

I will stay here in Mysore for another month and I hope get to know the city better. I'll also begin to plan the Africa leg of this journey which will start in July.

There are moments when doubt creeps in. Doubt as to quite what I'm doing here; self-doubt too. But this is a journey designed to have no specific outcome, a journey for me, a journey to discover what is happening in the world outside the tiny island I was born in. It's not a journey of self-discovery as such. I think I have a pretty good idea of what I'm about, what I can do and what I can't do. What I do hope is that I will have a stronger sense of what is REALLY important to me, a greater sense of what it is that I can still contribute and where my roots should start to grow deeper. I want that to happen and from a place of strength and belonging and loving, focus on what it is I can do effectively and realistically.

Maybe I need to go and buy some rooting powder from the market. But where to plant?

Sunday, 6 June 2010

I'm leaving on a twin-prop little plane

..don't know when I'll be back again.

I'm really sorry to be leaving here in the morning and flying to Delhi and the heat. Then on to Bangalore and Mysore the next day. I've heard the monsoon has arrived in Mysore so I'll be moving from a delicious warm climate in the mountains to the heat and humidity of the plains.

I've met some lovely people here and am started to be recognised. I'm greeted in the street and three people yesterday asked if I was Simon. Word spreads when a stranger's in town.

I finished my last day with a wonderful tiring slow walk up into the hills and along forest tracks with Alok and Isabelle and their 8 year old son Mridula. They know the tracks so well and we found percupine quills, leopard droppings and other signs of invisible life. Our picnic was in a glade with just the wind and he pines that swayed to its bidding.

I'm beginning to feel that I don't want to keep on leaving...done too much of it in my life.

My three hour taxi ride to a little airport with the little plane starts at 9 in the morning...but that's for tomorrow. Now it's a last walk round the Ghandi Chowk and back to the cottage.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Sacred Hearts and Jam-making

My friend David who I met at the Chamba wedding, teaches music at Sacred Heart school in Dalhousie. The school was started in the early 1900s by Belgian nuns, no doubt in an attempt to convert the heathen Hindu. That attempt seems to have met with singular failure because now the school has a few boys and 600 girls from eight to eighteen and only a handful are Christian, It's a boarding school, and a calm discipline hangs in the air.

David showed me around. He's only been there a month but his passion for music has obviously been picked up by staff and pupils alike and he's fondly greeted. We go into some of the classes. They're all quite big with 50 or so pupils. They stand up immediately and chant 'Good Morning Sir'. I'm sure that's aimed at David but I'll take it too. In one class the teacher asks me to say a few words. What to say? I ask them if they have any questions about England. 'Is Queen Elizabeth still alive Sir?' Very much so I say. Old but hanging on. 'Have you ever met Queen Elizabeth Sir?' As it happens I have and I say yes. It doesn't seem to impress much. 'Sir, do all people who speak English look like you?' What a thought. An English speaking world of cloned Simons. 'Absolutely not.' The teacher thankfully brings the interrogation to a halt and we move to another class where Macbeth is being studied. I tell them I've been to Dunsinane but they're not impressed. The teacher asks them to recite some of the play and witches stir their pots. I reply with 'Out, out damn spot' but the teacher says they haven't got that far.

The older girls sleep in a dormitory with their own curtained-off three-sided rooms facing on to a central corridor. The young ones sleep in two huge rooms with cots head to toe in rows, each with an enormous teddy bear on the pillow. It feels a comforting place.

I've been told about a couple called Alok and Isabelle who set up the Himalayan Village Education Trust. He's Indian, she's French and they have set up two small projects providing training in dress

and jam-making for girls and women in a village 5 kilometres outside Dalhousie. Alok picks me up with his young son and the three of us perch on his scooter and scoot off to the project. The fruits used for jam are picked in the wild by village women, rhododendrons, sedar, raspberry and orange. Apricots and plums are bought at wholesale rates from local farmers.

It's now financially self-sufficient and the women are running most of the micro jamming. They sell this niche product to a few shops in Dalhousie and Daramsala and it has provided a good income and some independence for the women.

Alok tells me that there is a continual run of trucks from Dalhousie coming into the hills to collect water from the local streams for the hotels. Each truck holds 5000 litres and he's calculated that getting on for 1,000,000 litres a day are taken to the town to meet the tourist demand for water. This results in the local villages having their supply reduced or stopped. He's a passionate ecologist and environmentalist and a thorn in the side of the Dalhousie power-brokers. But money talks strongly here and the whiff of corruption is never far away. His protests lead to threats of being closed down but he has strong local village support and the more he and Isabelle empower the local women, the stronger the village communities become.

I admire people like Isabelle and Alok. They put their passions into practice and live them. I wish I too could have that strength and ability to focus small and tight on an issue and empower others too. But my leanings are to the bigger picture, being able to bring people like Alok and Isabelle together with others who are fighting similar causes, to share successes and failures, to learn and inspire each other. They have the knowledge and skills, not me. Maybe I can find a way to enable that sharing.

I walked back to Dalhousie. A beautiful stroll along the side of the mountain with views down into the valley and across to mountain ranges miles away.

For those of you who thought I might bury myself way in a Buddhist monastery deep in the Himalayas, dwelling on the impermanence of life, fear not. I love this world with all its joy and love and pain and suffering and feel very much part of it. But I will never stop learning and exploring the many ways to be in this world.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The Wedding

I'm back from a wedding in Chamba, a town about 50 kms from Dalhousie. The bride was the niece of Premila, the housekeeper of Dakshinamurti cottage where I'm staying.

To get there and back, I take a local bus. Local buses are basic. Very basic. There are seats for about 45 people and standing capacity for as many as can get on. Not only are there seats in the places you'd expect, there are bench seats beside the driver which seem to be filled by his friends. The journey to Chamba climbs high along mountain roads and then descends, dropping quickly into the town. Driving needs total concentration. The roads are narrow, very windy with precipitous drops. The bus is big for the road, and so are the lorries coming the other way. The bus fills. There must be 70 or 80 people packed on board. The bus is remarkably fast and gets faster as it descends. The driver is in animated conversation with his friends and as each bend approaches, his hand sits hard on the horn warning the approaching traffic that he's coming. The trucks coming the other way do the same and there's a crescendo of sound as both somehow slip by each other. The driver's conversation continues. The journey takes three long hours. Those who do this daily are totally unaffected. I'm shaking.

I was told that the bride would arrive about 6.30 but could be later. Guests are arriving and having a self service lunch of rice and dahl. The wedding is taking place in what looks like the shell of a half built hotel. I assume it will be a hotel sometime because it's called Nayar Palace. A palace it isn't. But inside, the brick and concrete walls are being covered with blue and silver wall hangings, a dais is in place with two red and silver thrones side by side and on the open roof, folding tables and chairs are being laid out. There seems an awful lot to do in just a few hours. People are sitting around, the women dressed in beautiful coloured kurtas and shalwa kameez and an occasional sari, the men in jeans, slacks and shirts. 6.30 approaches. No one seems unduly interested but all the wall hangings are up, chairs set out and the place looks good and ready....maybe it is a palace after all.

7.30.....8.30....I ask if there's a problem. Maybe the bride has decided it's not for her after all. And the groom's nowhere to be seen either. Perhaps they've eloped and the romantic me sort of hopes they have.

9.30....10.30....this is serious. But I'm the only person who seems to care. This is India after all. There's a bit of movement. The young girls are getting excited and start to drift downstairs to the entrance.

11....a faint sound of brass instruments and drums. I go down and the girls have lined up across the entrance in a line. No one shall pass, especially the groom. I get out onto the road and coming up the hill is the groom sitting uncomforably on a white pony, surrounded by his cortege of friends and musicians. He's dressed from head to toe in a red and silver outfit with a headdress with flashing lights that defies description. Sewn into his clothes are 50 rupee notes, lots of them. Women and girls start to dance in the road and the music gets louder. Garlands and gifts are exchanged between families. No one seems to be smiling let alone the grim groom who gets off the horse and what looks like a wooden saddle. Maybe that's why he's so sullen. He and his male friends approach the line of girls and negotiations begin. He has to pay to come in, has to persuade the girls that he is wealthy enough for this bride. Just as well he has all those notes up his sleeve. The deal is done. The line breaks. The girls laugh and giggle. All very symbolic. But where is the bride? She's been smuggled in. I missed her. She's in a room having final words of advice about men from her family. Everyone slowly moves up the stairs. The mothers-in-law are waiting, facing each other. No handbags. Gifts to exchange. They smile. The families are happy. The groom is still grim. Is this a love marriage? Oh yes. The groom and his friends move to the dais and occupy the two thrones.

Under a canopy, the bride and her female helpers lowly approach the dais. She looks magnificent in a costume matching her husband to be. Her face is partly hidden, eyes down, not looking at dais or him. This time it's the groom's friends who block the way. More negotiations and at last bride and groom are side by side. No glances at each other, no smiles. They stand and face each other. The bride, eyes still down, puts a garland around her husband's neck. He places one round hers. That's it. Done. The take their thrones again and two by two, family and friends take their turn to stand being the couple, blessing them with rupee notes of differing denominations. The pile of notes in their laps is growing.

It's 12.30 in the morning. Husband and wife go to a small room, hopefully at least to smile at each other and count their blessings. The buffet is served. Water or Fanta to accompany it.

It's three in the morning, the end of May. I find a mat in the corner of the room and sleep. I'm not alone. I wake at six. The ceremony is continuing around me, the Hindu priest incanting blessings round a flame. There's been no sleep for the couple and family. This is a ceremony that befits the vows. A lifetime's commitment. Unable to be broken. Problems to be shared and worked through. No running away.

David, a 22 year-old musician has befriended me and over breakfast we discuss the merits of Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, John Denver, AC/DC, the blues, country music and jazz. He teaches at a school in Dalhousie. Sacred Heart. He will show me around when we get back.

But first we have to face the return bus journey. We follow the Ravi river, one of the five rivers that flow from the mountains, meeting in the Punjab to create the Ganges. The bus climbs out of Chamba and way down in the valley, the terraced farms look rich and fecund. Huge light green lakes fill the valley. A land of milk and honey.

The bus is not alone. There are two others following, not far behind, The driver needs to get ahead to be sure of picking up as many passengers as possible. So do the buses behind. It becomes a race. A race along the precipice, round-hairpin bends, halting only to pick up or put down. I look at David. Even I haven't been so fast he says. But no-one seems to care. It's fate.

I hope the newly-weds are enjoying their fate at last.

ps...for those of you with Facebook, I'm posting a lot more photos there.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Choices, choices

Today I have finished my introduction to Buddhism with Balbir Jootla. A revealing initial insight into a way of being. It has given me much to think about. About the impermanence of everything. That life, as a result, is suffering; that there is a way out of suffering through living a good life and meditating to develop a a state of mind that brings an inner happiness, unaffected by the clinging and craving of the life we are born to.

There is much here in common with the religions that mankind has developed to find salvation. Most are based on faith in a god(s) through whom salvation can be found in an afterlife. All exhort their followers to live a 'good' life with mildly differing definitions of what that means. Some actively set out to convert, others wait to be found.

For me, I can dismiss those that proselytise. Setting out to convert people to 'the one true god' smacks of an arrogance, a self-belief that is dangerous. Surely it is best for a person to find for himself, when he is ready, an inner life through his own efforts and his own seeking.

So, is the life we know impermanent? Is everything in a state of change? Is anything certain? The more I think about it, the more I begin to realise that everything is continually changing. The natural world and the earth that sustains it is made up of atoms, molecules, in a constant state of change and development. Even a seemingly inanimate object such as a rock is wearing and disintegrating. There is nothing that does not disintegrate, change, have the seed of its own destruction within it. When a child is born, it begins a life of change that will inevitably lead to death. Love between two people, however wonderful does not last, even if it continues until the death of one or both. Tell me something that is totally permanent. Please. Show me I'm wrong. Surely we live an ephemeral life searching for happiness, finding it for a short while until inevitably it turns to sorrow. Is there anything in our material world that can give lifelong happiness? Is there anything that never changes? Please tell me if there is.

If everything about our life is transitory with suffering following happiness, should we seek happiness where suffering does not follow, and if so where? Should we have faith in a belief structure promising eternal life after death or should we do something here and now, take a personal journey, concentrating on training one's mind to find a place of inner peace whilst living in harmony on this amazing planet. Or should we just get on with life, face its continual struggle, do the best we can, face the pain when it comes and then die.

Choices, choices.

Whatever path we choose, it seems to me that respect for this Earth, and the natural world of which humanity is such a tiny part, an understanding that everything is interconnected and that whatever we do is subject to cause and effect, is essential. We have been taught to believe that mankind is superior to every other living species, that every other species is here to serve us in one way or another, as food, for entertainment, to be experimented on for our betterment, for our material and physical well-being. We have lost the connection that our early forebears had with nature, lost the language to communicate with other species, forgotten our respect for and awareness of the incredible abilities of animals and plants to do things that we could not begin to do. The only thing that marks out mankind as superior is our developed brain. It seems like it's gone to our heads. What does our brain really give us that is superior if we only use it to concentrate on ourselves to the detriment of everything else?

Is mankind's arrogance and blind self belief in his superiority the one thing that never changes? Somehow I doubt it. It too has the seeds of its own self-destruction.

Impermanence rules. Ok?

Friday, 28 May 2010

Storming monkeys

Last night, there was a storm. A humdinger electric, cymbals kettledrums bass guitars thumping flashing storm that cleared the air after three unsually hot days. I lay in bed restless as I have been for the last couple of nights, in full admiration of what nature can produce. That storm has passed but now the air is full of dust that is hiding the hills and the wind is still whipping around. The power has only just been restored to Dalhousie.

The wind also whipped open the door to the cottage as I slept after lunch. That sleep has become a bit of a habit now as I wake early before 6am and make a cup of chai before sitting outside on the verandah as the sun rises. An open door is an invitation to the monkeys that live a large numbers around here and they took it. When I woke, the bananas in the fruit bowl had been eaten leaving the skins behind, the remnants of my loaf of bread was scattered all over the verandah and a tomato lay squashed on the kitchen floor. I'm glad I slept through it all. My bedroom door was open and it or however many there were, thankfully did not consider me tasty enough.

Another lesson learnt.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Mini musings on turning 64

A strange expression turning 64. If I keep turning the same way I'll get older. But what if I turned the other way? Would I regain my youth? Do I want to? I can think of one or two reasons.

I was a teenager at school when the Beatles recorded When I'm 64. I remember working out what year it would be when I became that great age. Now 2010 has come and soon it will be gone.

This is the second birthday I've spent in India. The first, three years ago was in the Coorg rainforests. This time I'm in the Himalayas, the mountain range that arguably sustains our Earth. They are troubled mountains, struggling with hotter summers, less snowfall and therefore less water. The water that creates the great rivers sustaining a huge percentage of the world's population and countless flora and fauna, is reducing. Glaciers are melting and the likelihood of uncontrolled flooding from the monsoons is growing.

We are in an unprecedented time of change. My generation in the West has had a full, bountiful life fuelled by oil. A time of plenty, technological advances that change and develop leaving us breathless, wondering how we could ever have done without this and that. But how much do we really need? One thing for certain is that constant growth isn't sustainable and we have yet to discover the price to pay. Nothing goes on forever.

I'm glad I've reached 64 and know I have to get off the path that carries on regardless. But which way do I go next? Maybe there's still time to sit and wait and muse before choosing. Maybe.

That song was good. Still is. But now I know the answer to the questions it asks. It's YES.

Thank you, one and all.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010


The cottage I'm staying in is a wonderfully peaceful place. It is a very simple, stone built building with a corrugated iron roof, built into the hillside as are all the houses in Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh. It has a history and it's strongly felt. The verandah is wonderful place to sit quietly and enjoy those ripe juicy mangoes I love so much.

The town is a retreat for visitors to escape the heat of the Indian summer and has a strong British presence in its history.

But that is well in the past and now I seem to be the only European amongst many hundreds of Indian tourists. I get stopped to have my photo taken with a passing family. It's strange to be an object of interest or maybe just curiosity.

The town is at 7000ft in the Himalayas, nothing in comparison to the mountains further north but even so, climbing up the steps to the road leaves me short of breath.

The friend who has lent me the cottage introduced me to a Buddhist teacher, Balbir Jootli. A man in his 70s living alone in a beautiful house just out of the town which looks across the valley to snow-capped mountains. He has offered to teach me the basics of Buddhism while I'm here and each morning I walk for 40 minutes up a gradually increasing incline to his house. I reach the top sweating, panting and breathless. This is exercising my legs and my lungs and heart and hopefully my spirit.

No one said enlightenment was easy...

Me in my next life??

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The train that never was

To get a train in India, it's necessary to book ahead. You either get a confirmed seat straight away or you are 'waitlisted'. If you're waitlisted up to 5, 6, 7 or more it's usual to get on. I had a waitlisted first class a/c berth from Delhi to Chakki Bank, reasonably close to Dalhousie in the Himalayas. Waitlisted number 2. No problem. Ha! Trains from Delhi at this time of year are packed, booked weeks ahead and seats are rarely cancelled. It's 45 degrees after all. I don't get on my train. My romantic journey for one to the hills is over. A flight? All booked. Buses? Booked. It's a taxi. The only other option. 750 kms. 10 hours with stops. A price is suggested. I cringe. I haggle. A price is agreed. They are much better poker players than me.

The car looks ok in the dark. The driver smiles and shakes my hand. Vijay. We set off. I've been to Delhi a few times. I know which direction is north. Vijay doesn't. A stop at his house to pick up clothes, another to pick up a spare tyre. Several phone calls and an hour and a half later we are still circling Delhi. The sign to India Gate appears for the fifth time. The car stops. Vijay gets out and has an urgent conversation with another man. They point and look at the rear wheel. I know now why we have a spare tyre. The new man gets in to the drivers seat. 'My name is Amrik. I will drive. My family lives near Dalhousie. The other man doesn't know Delhi. He's from Jaipur.' I'm back watching Fawlty Towers. 'The wheel is not good. We will change on the way'.

The wheel indeed is not good. A hole. No problem. The man at the side of the road gets out a big needle and threads it with something closely resembling thick red rubberised string. He pushes the threaded needle into the hole, pulls it out, the string is in the hole, the hole is fixed, we are away. I assume the tyre has an inner tube. No says Amrik. Tubeless.

There are traffic rules in India. It's just that traffic rules. Lane discipline? None. Rear lights? Not often Surely that's not a truck coming in the 'wrong' direction? It is. Overtaking? No problem. To the left, the right, weaving in and out. See a space? Grab it. I understand why a sense of fatalism pervades everywhere. I ask Amrik the secret of driving in India. 'An open mind, an open heart and good luck.' What to do. Go with it or go crazy. I close my eyes and try to sleep.

Out of Delhi the traffic and the constant sound of horns reduces. Amrik is a good driver. I can trust him. I lie down to try and sleep on the back seat. I sleep. Bang! The car swerves. It's ok says Amrik. Big accident on the opposite dual carriageway. We carry on. I don't sleep.

Eight fitful, sleepless hours later Amrik says we'll break the journey. We'll stay at his brother-in-law's house and freshen up. It's 5am and getting light. Good idea. We arrive. A sleepy man opens the front door and I stumble in. I'm taken to a huge bedroom and made welcome. We plan to leave again at 8am. His brother-in-law wants a lift to Dalhousie. Be my guest.

8am. No sign of Amrik. He will come. Relax. Have a beer. I prefer the mango juice. 9am. I want to go, to get to the end of this journey. Amrik arrives refreshed with a smart change of clothes. I look a total wreck. Three hours we'll be there he says. Relax.

We cross the state border from Punjab to Himachal Pradesh. Amrik is looking nervous. A police check. He gets out with his papers and disappears for 10 minutes. 'I gave him money' he says. Several phone calls later. Amrik says 'I've got you another taxi. I don't have a licence for Himachal.'

We wait. A small white car speeds by and comes to a screeching halt. 'He's here. You'll be ok. Have a safe journey.' I like Amrik. The new driver doesn't speak English. He hardly speaks at all. But we are in the mountains, climbing, negotiating hairpin bends. The views are breathtaking and so is the precipice. The heat is lessening. It's 1.30pm.

I've arrived at a cottage of such beauty, calm and simplicity that I cry.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Thoughts on a cashew nut

When you open that packet of cashew nuts and nibble away or toss one nonchalantly into your mouth as you drink and gin and tonic, do you think about where that nut came from and what process it went through before yielding its pleasures to you?

Probably not.

So, here is a cashew nut as it is on the tree. The nut itself hangs below the pod that sustains it. Each pod produces one cashew nut so a lot of picking has to happen first. The nuts are taken often to small processing plants...and by that I mean one room where women work together in hot airless conditions de-husking the nuts, soaking them in water, drying and sorting them before they go to wholesalers. It's a long labourious, poorly paid process, but it provides a living of sorts.

A lot of money is made from the nuts but not by the farmers or women workers. But that is nothing new. Just another example of the gross inequalities of a system designed and controlled by the powerful West to feed the already well-fed.

So, next time you enjoy that cashew nut think of how it got to you before it delivers its delicious taste and disappears in a few masticatory moments into your stomach.

We should all think a lot more about where things come from and how they get to us. Don'tcha think?


Monday, 17 May 2010

Sucking Mangoes

May is the month for sucking mangoes. Not any old mangoes. The Alphonso, the richest, juiciest, most succulent of yellow flesh that grow here and come fresh from the trees. Well, actually in my case, the street seller who shouted his wares from the street outside the apartment. But with a little imagination I can close my eyes and reach up to the fruit and with the lightest of touches, feel it surrender into my hands.

In my last blog I was very impolite about the buses. This time I can ring the praises of the Indian budget airline that flew me back in 50 minutes. Pofessional, comfortable, on time and a pleasure to fly with. Ok there was another four hours on a bus after that in the middle of a tropical rainstorm. I'm glad it was the evening, in the dark and the advertising on the bus windows blanked out the turmoil on the roads. Hearing the constant sound of horns and feeling the bus weave in and out of the traffic was enough and I did not allow whatever fertility I have have left in my brain to be wasted on this.

Save it for Alphonso.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Bolly Wally doodle all the way

Undertaking a 19 hour bus journey to the Arabian Sea coast of India is an experience. It's an air-condtioned Volvo bus with reclining seats. Leg room is ok until the seat in front is reclined. Then you begin to realise what it must be like to be a chicken squashed in the cages that sit outside the chicken vendors' stalls awaiting the end they were bred for. But after a few hours the leg position sort of gets fixed and almost comfortable and it's straightening one out when the blood rushes back in that it feels excrutiating.

But there's something else even more excrutiating. As soon as the bus sets off, the dvd with a Bollywood movie is slipped into the player and the movie begins. OK, I'm not an afficianado of Bollywood movies, I don't understand what they're saying other than the few English words that creep in at speed and disappear even faster and I don't get what it is about them that makes them so popular. But my fellow passengers are rivited. When the first one ends, the second one starts. Surely it's the same movie with different actors and the heroine love magnet is called Anjali in both movies. The car chase is the same, the cars packed with distraught families chasing the eloping lovers who are always on a motorbike; the kung-fu style violent fights with bloodied voice-overs emphasing the cracking bones and sharpness of the punches; the dancing, oh yes the dancing, always a straight scene shift to a beautiful mountainside usually after a blood-soaked fight. There are subtleties here I need explained to me but for now they help in diverting from the crushed legs.

At least when it's time to try to sleep (ha!), the video falls silent...and the snoring starts.

I remember I had thought of doing a six month bus overland trip from the UK to Australia. Suddenly this journey doesn't feel so bad.

I've booked a flight back.

Sunday, 9 May 2010


Across the small road in front of the apartment is a park. A gentle, tree filled shady place enjoyed by the local children and their parents. I can see that it will become a haven for me, especially when a quiet time is needed to reflect on life and love and all the things that challenge us and need to be faced and absorbed and allowed to mellow.

I was reflecting on this when I heard a child say 'Hello Uncle, what is your name?' Well, as someone who will be a grandfather later this year and who is already a Great Uncle as well as an uncle, I'll take that. It's a lovely greeting and one commonplace here and soon we were exchanging pleasanteries as if we'd known each other for years and the number of children surrounding me had grown from one to seven.

This has been a long lazy day, perfectly fine for a Sunday but I can completely understand how easy it would be to just stay like that, reflecting, feeling, just being still.

But hey, the world awaits and Uncles, great or not must play their part. It's time to pour that glass of wine a think about supper.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The bed, the maid and the gecko

It's impossible to underestimate the shock to the system of moving into a new culture, a new life, a new set of experiences, however well adjusted and experienced you may think you are. Coming away for a holiday is one thing. Coming for six months is quite another. There's a finality to the realisation that the 'normality' that you are used to is not going to be there again in a couple of weeks, that this is it. I should have remembered what it felt like moving to Glasgow from Bath but even that hasn't prepared me for this.

The shocks and surprises come in big and little ways, often with a subtlety that takes a while to realise. Vasanth my new friend and helper took me to the place where I can get a bed made. Yes, I could have gone to an emporium, they exist here is growing numbers, but this was a small carpentry shop on the main road with seemingly not much going on. Whatever was going on, was being done slowly, oh so slowly. But the bed will be ready in six days and will be assembled in my bedroom. I am assured it will happen on the appointed day and at the appointed time. Somehow I think it will. Then the mattress, pillows, sheets and towels had to be bought. So, onto the back of Vasanth's scooter and a scoot into the city. Sitting in a taxi in Indian city traffic is one thing. Being on the back of a scooter with trucks, buses, cars, hundreds of other scooters and countless pedestrians all wanting to go in the same and opposite mishmash of directions is quite another. I don't close my eyes.

Buying the bedlinen and mattress means sitting down at the counter while different shapes, sizes, colours and textures of goods are presented by an endless parade of assistants all only too willing to be of service. The cost is added up and Vasanth haggles but there is little movement from the friendly owner and I hand over the money. He doesn't use credit cards. Another trip to the ATM is needed. On to the scooter again for a final search for white cotton sheets - Indians I am told prefer patterned because they don't show the dirt so easily. The scooter gets a puncture but there within a few metres is a small repair shop and in the time it takes to down a glass of chai, it's fixed. We return to the shop where the mattress is being loaded on to the roof of a rickshaw together with the pillows, towels and sheets. The bottles of wine go inside with me.

Manjula the maid arrived in the morning, silently, barefooted. Stephen had warned me that she just appears soundlessly. A lovely smile, a shake of the hand and she gets on and does what she does. She makes chai. Wonderful refreshing sweet chai. I suddenly remember the Neil Young song Every Man Needs a Maid.

This morning, as Manjala isn't coming, I decide to make chai having learnt from the expert. I lift the cup to my lips in anticipation of that early morning bliss. The container I thought had sugar in it was salt. Manjula, where are you??

But that could not have been as big a shock as the baby gecko must have had. Suffice it to say, I flushed the loo, looked into the bowl and the little gecko was fighting for its life in the vortex. Dear readers, it survived.

Thursday, 6 May 2010


I went up to the apartment's roof garden at 6.30 this evening as the sun was setting. I noticed that all the birds, whether in groups including that technical wonder the V formation, pairs or oh so rarely, singles, were all flying towards the disappearing sun.

Note for self....sun sinking after a very hot day calls for a G&T or a glass of wine on the roof to celebrate the cooling day, the sounds of the night birds and of course the cicadas. What a joy to hear them again.


It's 9.15 in the morning in hot, steamy Mysore and I've been in Stephen's apartment for one hour where I'll be based while I'm in India.

The power is on, the modem has connected, the phone is working, the fans are whirring, the birds are chirping and I'm knackered. So, a few hours of attempted sleep coming up before I emerge doused with a bucket of cold water, into the streets to find food, a bank and who knows what else. I've arrived!!

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The journey begins

It's Wednesday May 5th, the day the I've been planning for (sort of) and looking forward to. Now as I sit in the splendour of Heathrow Terminal 5, the reality has kicked in and I'm feeling nervous and excited and part of me, a small part, is wondering what the hell I'm doing...but this is a journey thats been building up inside for for quite a while. I'll miss all those I love and who I know and who are part of life. So, please comment and follow me.

Postings on here will be iregular, depending on where I am, what I'm doing and if there's an internet connection.

India and Africa, here I come!