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!