Tha-island: See what I did there…?

I stumble out of the Mason’s Arms and into the night. The sky is a huge grey and black dome lowering above me. A half moon sits at its apex seeping its milk light out into a saucer of cloud. The faux English pub exudes a warm glow at my back as I begin my slow walk home. My gait is halting and heavy as I shuffle my weight from one sore leg to the other.

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Sunset from Top Rock bar.

Any passers by would be forgiven for thinking me drunk, and they wouldn’t be wrong, but the truth is I have had just one solitary pint of Guinness. Obviously my tolerance level these days is embarassing. I have clearly neglected to practice, and the heat here is a very effective dehydrator. It is past 8pm and the temperature must still be in the high 20s. I walk slowly along the quiet road towards my little chalet, my little home, here in my little island paradise.

Once home I throw on the fan, throw off my shirt and play some Portishead on the tablet. My 8inch LG is by far the most irritating thing to write on, and indeed shares no small amount of the blame for the irregularity of my blog posts (though I am humble enough to admit that maybe, possibly, a tiny percentage could be attributed to my own laziness). The gap in the timeline of the record of my travels now spans about three months. I have said nothing of my whirlwind tour of North India, a trip I made in the company of some very wonderful people. I have reported next to nothing about my month and a half in Nepal, though I have a combined total of twenty days without reliable internet to blame for that one (also more laziness). I have also been silent on my more than eventful trip to Malaysia and my arrival and subsequent month in Thailand. I had thought of trying to catch up. I suppose the historian in me wanted an exact chrinological record. However, at this stage I figure that is just not possible (also lazy). So I shall have to plough on and try and incorporate things as I go.

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On the boat to the island.
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My home for the month.

In light of such an inexcusable blog backlog strangely enough I currently feel I have little news to impart. Home has been much on my mind since I got here, due in no small part to the wonderful news of the referendum result. Whilst I somewhat anticipated the joy that a yes vote would create I was not anticipating the knock-on effect the referendum has had on politics in general. It seems a generation of Irish people has had that rarest of experiences, a moment in time where it felt their voices counted, that the system actually could work and positive change could be effected. It was startling to see the difference between the hopelessness of British friends after the recent general election and the pride and confidence of my Irish ones after the referendum. Long may that special moment and special feeling continue.

It is now almost exactly four months since I left home and I will have to admit to the odd pang of homesickness, though these have been rare. More recently I have become very happy indeed in my own company, which is one small reason for my infrequent drinking mentioned above. The other is something I have consistently rubbed up against on my travels, and something that was brought home to me very strongly during the first of my many perilous experiences – I hate not being in control. I think this is the major reason I have never really done drugs (I’m sure my parents will be relieved at that sentence, though the really might raise some eyebrows…). I can be a bit bonkers at the soberest of times – I think it’s the extrovert in me – so I was always afraid of what I might do under the influence of something stronger than alcohol. This has been tested once more in the party atmosphere of Koh Phangan, the Thai island I have pitched up on for the past month. Where friends around me are happily smoking joints and doing MDMA or worse for big nights out, I find myself at best uninterested in their effects and at worst terrified of what they might be. I don’t say this in any way smugly. I’m sure if anyone has been bothered to read this far they will be more likely to laugh at me for being a coward and a nerd but it is – perhaps regrettably – the truth. Besides, had I any desire to be, or even appear to be “cool”, I probably would have done the complete opposite of everything I have done since I left school…

As to the aforementioned perilous experiences, the first was when a taxi I was in nearly went down a 200m cliff in Rishikesh, India. The second when the path I was trekking in the mountains disappeared under a landslide and I had to climb across loose rock with a dry river bed below. The third when I was forced to ford a river with all my gear, ala Into the Wild, and the fourth, fifth and sixth all happened on the one bus journey in Nepal. I intend to talk to a professional at some stage about that particular experience…

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Chilling at the pool

I am in Thailand now, on the island of Koh Phangan, which is apparently “the” notorious party destination. As with most parties though it seems I haven’t been invited. Or I’m just in the wrong place. As my Dad used to say (repeatedly, like so many of his jokes) “The day my ship came in, I was at the airport.” I am staying on the west side of the island in a little chalet with my own toilet, shower, sink and fridge. Whilst at first glance this seemed quite luxurious in comparison to some of the places I’ve stayed I have since realised there are a few minor flaws. The water in the shower frequently smells like egg. Whilst the toilet faithfully flushes anything you put in it, too often it responds with an equal and opposite olfactory reaction. The drain is in fact a hole in the concrete floor which allows for efficient two-way traffic between my shower water and whatever cockroaches, lizards, frogs and other local residents who choose to come and have a look around. The sink also has a tendency to just fall off the wall. All that being said, it is in fact one of the most cleverly designed toilets I have ever used as I am able to shower, brush my teeth and go to the toilet all at the same time, without compromising the quality of or commitment to any of those individual tasks.

It’s been particularly charming having my own fridge again and it’s funny how such a little thing can have a big affect on you. For me it made me think of my time in London, of buying bread tins and assorted kitchen equipment, of getting a box of vegetables delivered to the door at 7am every Wednesday morning, of living under my own roof and by my own rules (obviously worked out in consultation with Nessa, and our two other flatmates). More than anything else, having that fridge in the corner makes me want to start life again. I am enjoying travelling and am looking forward to seeing many other places as I go but I have this sneaking suspicion that the real adventure will only begin when I dig my feet in the ground and call a place home.

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Some of us Muay Thaiers...

So maybe I should talk more about Thailand. The island here is beautiful, white sand, turqoise water, emerald hills. The people are happy and laidback and welcoming, with a few exceptions, notably a rather curmudgeonly street vendor who, in her defence, sells the most delicious crab claws. I am spending my days eating vast amounts of pad thai, drinking copious fruit juices, trundling around the concrete roads on a little scooter, learning a bit of Muay Thai kickboxing, reading and lying by a beach. I have done the Full Moon Party which I can report was much the same as most parties in that a) I drank too much whiskey b) I sweated like a pig and c) I removed my shirt and made a complete tit of myself dancing on a stage for four hours. Where it differed was in the fact that a) it was on a beach in Thailandb) everyone was covered in multi-colour paint and c) I got kissed by a ladyboy. I had initially planned to get some substantial writing done when I got here but that idea fell by the wayside pretty quickly. In fact in the three weeks I have been here I have read the entirety of Game of Thrones, the terrifying true story of The Amityville Horror, re-read the LA noir of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo and I am currently embarked upon Max Hastings’s account of Churchill at war. I’m not exactly sure why I’ve been reading so much but what I do know is that by not writing I have fallen very much out of practice. I am beginning to bore myself here. If you’ve courageously – or maybe masochistically – made it this far, I feel an apology is in order.

I will say one final thing. The two occasions I have properly addressed myself to writing this post have both come during bouts of that homesickness I mentioned earlier. I feel I am writing out of frustration, mostly with myself I suppose. Perhaps I have spent too much time thinking about home this past month. Too much time talking with old friends rather than making new ones. I’ve probably just been here too long. As Sam Cooke used to sing though, a change is gonna come. This Sunday I leave for Cambodia and I leave behind me here some unfinished business with Thailand. I haven’t properly seen it yet in all its glory, but I will, someday.

Leaving Nepal

I am due to leave Nepal in the midst of a thunderstorm. Lightning illuminates the sky and the thunder rattles the windows of Kathmandu’s fragile airport terminal. It is a dramatic end to a dramatic journey. Along the way there have been earthquakes, landslides, avalanches and car crashes. I have climbed mountains, waded through rivers, explored jungles and on more occasions than I care to remember I have been close to an untimely death. But it hasn’t all been thrills and spills. I have meditated in a monastery, hung out on the beach, and relaxed in a peaceful little village. And for me personally there has been fun and fear, excitement and infuriation, plenty of boredom and even a little romance.

All of this seems somewhat beside the point however, in light of the recent events in the country. The earthquake that hit on the 25th of April, the constant aftershocks that followed and now the second major one, have devastated an already poor country. Whole villages have been left in ruins, emergency supplies taking days, even weeks to get to them, and thousands of people are sleeping outside – the lucky ones under flimsy tents – exposed to the vagaries of the elements and the spread of disease. On top of all of this one of the country’s chief revenue streams, the tourism industry, has been decimated as foreigners have cancelled bookings for the September/ October season, usually the busiest time of the year. It will take years for this captivating, welcoming and beautiful country to get back on its feet, and its recovery will only be hampered by a government which is at best unresponsive to its people’s needs and at worst totally corrupt.

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Picking up supplies in Pokhara

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It would require a far more eloquent hand and perceptive mind than mine to fully describe the effects of this tragedy and in this particular blog I will not attempt an in depth analysis. The use of that word “tragedy” however suggests one short digression.

There is a famous quote often attributed to Stalin that goes “One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”. If you read up about the earthquake (and you should) you will find huge numbers of statistics thrown at you. So many people have died, so many houses have been destroyed, so much money needed for reconstruction…the list goes on. But statistics only ever tell a tiny percentage of a story. They represent an objective truth; a colourless, faceless, incomprehensible and easy way to talk about a tragedy whilst comfortably distancing us from the reality of the situation. I travel to only a few villages affected by the earthquake but everywhere I see people and their lives, not statistics. I do not know if the plight of these people is representative of the entire country. I don’t know what statistic they fit into. All I know is that I see how they are now living, and how they will have to live for some time, until reconstruction can begin in earnest. Strangely enough, what I see is not entirely hopeless.

The Nepali people strike me as both incredibly practical and resourceful. I see it in the rickshaw drivers of Kathmandu, who attach umbrellas to pipes and weld them to their bikes, or use Coke bottles as horns. I see it in the village people who build makeshift shelters for a family of 6 in 20 minutes out of loose remnants of their collapsed house and some sheets of aluminium. I see it in the kitchens of the remote villages, where nothing goes to the waste. I see it in the trekking agencies who turn their logistical knowhow to helping their fellow countrymen in their direst need and who manage to load seemingly limitless supplies of rice, tents, water and medicines onto jeeps bound for the remotest regions. Most of all I see it in the humour and acceptance, and the simple determination with which so many of the Nepalese face the devastation wrought by the earthquake. These are the people behind the statistics. People like you or I. People with houses and homes, families, friends, jobs, smartphones, Facebook profiles. People without roofs over their heads, without loved ones lost in the rubble, with barely enough to eat, but for whom life will go on. The problem with statistics is that the focus your mind on the number, not on the subject.

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This has been a very different, and very difficult post to write. It is hard to put on paper my experience. The fact that I was safe throughout everything, that I was a tourist, that I couldn’t really help out more than making a few tents, cleaning a few cuts and carrying some aluminium makes me feel guilty, unworthy to be talking of this. I feel I can’t mention my own journey, my own experiences, as that will only trivialise the destruction that has occurred. As such I will leave things here for now. Attached to the post are some photos of the destruction but in many of the places I went I would have felt like a complete voyeur to be taking out my camera to document people’s misery so they are extremely limited.

I hope in a few days to resume normal service on the blog, and catch up on all that I’ve missed.

5 Reasons I would vote yes on May 22nd

On May 22nd the people of Ireland will have an opportunity to vote on a hugely important issue. I will be out of the country and as such won’t be able to make my voice heard on the day in question, so I shall have to make do with this short article. I suppose it is mainly aimed at people who are either unsure of whether they are going to vote or what they are going to vote for. If any of the reasons I’ve outlined below have any impact on you please “Be My Yes”, and if not for yourself, at least vote yes for me…! Thank you.

1) The issue of the referendum is equality.
For thousands of years humans proclaimed universal equality, whilst casually ignoring, or openly excluding whoever was deemed inferior. But gradually people of different sexes, different colours and different creeds acquired equal rights and society slowly relinquished its prejudices towards the poor, the infirm and those with intellectual disabilities. Each time a new minority or disenfranchised group came in from the cold, humanity advanced. It became more open, more tolerant, less violent, less irrational and a great deal more understanding. So when I find myself being asked if I want to continue that trend and open up Irish society more – to be a citizen of the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage by popular vote – I am not only willing but incredibly eager to do so.

2) For me marriage means love between two people.
Marriage once had very little to do with the spouses. The contract was almost a purely social one, organised by the respective families to ensure economic and social gain. The young couple, often children, were expected to spend their lives locked together irrespective of any affection or love between them, to maintain the status and relationship of the two families, and the community as a whole. This was often a heavy sacrifice for people whose temperaments could have been vastly different, and one that I know I would not be able to bear. I believe I should be allowed to choose for myself, and marry the person I love. And because I believe that everyone in the state is equal, and should have the same opportunities as I have, I would feel incredibly hypocritical giving myself this right and denying it to any other.

3) Marriage should not be conflated with family.
I believe that a family can exist without marriage. I would not look at an unmarried couple with three children and think that they are not a family purely because they are not married. Likewise I would not disallow older people to marry because they are unable to have children, and I know of many people who marry that do not want them. So I don’t agree with anyone who tries to convince me that the purpose of marriage is procreation. Any smoke and mirrors thrown up in the campaign about family etc is entirely beside the point. The make-up of “the family” is not defined in the constitution and children have regularly, since the dawn of time, been brought up in “unorthodox” or non-nuclear families; by single-parents, two aunts, two uncles, grandparents, brothers, sisters or neighbours. Marriage is a bond between two people, no more than that.

4) Marriage as an institution would not be diminished but reinvigorated by this change.
Anyone who has seen John B. Keane’s Sive, or who has a vague understanding of recent Irish history regarding sexuality; namely the forced marriages to cover the shame of a pregnancy, or the abhorrent treatment of illegitimate children, will know how the Church, and society as a whole, enforced an idea of marriage as an archaic, unequal and dismal institution. The literal translation from the Burmese of “life-prison” would seem very apt. Many heterosexuals of the current generation are eschewing mariage altogether, and divorces are becoming more and more common. So I am led to wonder why the gay community is willing to fight so long and so hard, to suffer hatred and abuse, to be exposed to “the whips and scorns” of a virulent “No” campaign, just to win the right to this “life-prison”. The only answer is that they see it differently. They see it in both a realistic and a positive light. They feel that marriage still is, and still can be an immensely powerful and emotive bond, a beautiful, life-changing experience. Their confidence in this strengthens mine too and convinces me that allowing gay marriage will not diminish, but actually reinvigorate the institution.

5) Religion changes.
I was raised in a Christian household, and have, like most Irish people, imbibed some of those teachings. Though many of the churches oppose gay marriage, for me their injunctions hold no water because I know that what will condemn me to hell today will be an accepted norm tomorrow. For a thousand years, due to an error of translating the Hebrew word for “sweating”, the Catholic church maintained that Moses came down from Mount Sinai sporting a new pair of horns. When the mistake was realised the old dogma was simply wiped under the carpet. The Bible, and other religious texts, may purport to be the incontrovertible word of God, but they are also the words of man, and those words and their interpretations have changed significantly over time. As Steven Pinker writes, the Hebrew Old Testament sanctions violent actions like slavery, rape, torture, genocide etc. In it “human life held no value in comparison with unthinking obedience to custom and authority.” Now however, sensibilities have changed so much that even fervent believers compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. “They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.” Just as Christianity changed its stance on divorce, slavery, money-lending or women’s rights it will come to an accommodation with gay marriage. It is a question of when rather than if.

The Death of Death

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The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers.”
  – Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Nietzsche’s madman went running through the street proclaiming God’s demise over 100 years ago. Today, if he were around, he might be publicizing a far more important death altogether, that of death itself. For whilst atheism is actually losing ground and adherents to resurgent religiosity, its approach to death and belief in what comes after has penetrated all levels of our commercial, social and political lives, with devastating results to our individual happiness and the bonds that hold our communities together.

All the major world religions provide widely divergent ideas of who or what god is and whether there is one or many. They also disagree on what exactly happens after we die. What they agree on however, is that we do in fact die, and most importantly, that death is not the end.  In this respect the modern fundamentalist faith in scientific empiricism is an aberration, unique in its insistence on a purely material life, one that ends, once and for all, with death. Yet though this enfant terrible of the world of faith is very much in the minority, it seems impossible to escape its minimalist, materialist stance.

That being said, it cannot deny that death does happen. So why have I titled this article, The Death of Death? Well, to borrow terminology from the consumerist world, death may not have died, but its popularity has plummeted. It’s been voted off the X-Factor, it’s on the what’s not list, it’s no longer trending.

Fans of Monty Python might remember the sketch in which, as part of a new building initiative, an apartment complex remains standing only so long as its inhabitants maintain a collective belief in its continued existence. As soon as they begin to doubt it, the entire building collapses. So is the case with death. We have a vague understanding of its existence but when we have to properly face it, our untested assurance shatters and the facade collapses. As the Tibetan Buddhist writer, Sogyal Rinpoche, says, “People today are taught to deny death, and taught that it means nothing but annihilation and loss. That means that most of the world lives either in denial of death or in terror of it.” Both attitudes that lead people to avoid it as a subject altogether. What’s wrong with that, you might say? Who wants to talk about death? It’s morbid, it’s depressing. That may be, but for me at least, the lack of any real faith in an afterlife makes us pursue lives devoid of any real meaning. We live for the moment, filling our lives with as much pleasure as we can, relying entirely on external things to provide it. And when we come face to face with ourselves, or with death, where we can take none of those things with us, we are both terrified and full of regret for our life choices. On a larger scale as well, it means we as societies have no long-term vision, and we abuse and exploit the planet for what it’s worth in this lifetime, subjecting our descendants to a life of deprivation and struggle.

How did this happen? For me, a number of happy and very unhappy accidents coincided to create the materialist culture we currently “enjoy”. Most of these stem from the revolutions in communications, domestic life, social organisation and technology which originated during and after the Second World War. The technological advances were aptly summarized by the architect of the Third Reich, Albert Speer, during and after his Nuremberg trial, before even the dust had settled. He mainly spoke about the developments in weaponry, transport and communication, but within 20 years, domestic appliances such as televisions, washing machines and vacuum cleaners would be in a huge proportion of European and American households. The idea behind these new technologies was to make people’s lives easier, more comfortable; to take away the hardships that had previously characterized our existence. The question is then, why did we need this?

The major psychological shift in our cultures which meant we rushed to embrace these changes, can be pinpointed to a very exact time. At the end of the war two events occurred which have changed the modern, western world irrevocably. First, images of the unimaginable horror and mechanised slaughter of the concentration camps were beamed around the world, and second, the American air force dropped two bombs on Japanese soil whose destructive power far out-stripped anything the world had ever seen before. These two instances of mass death, and man’s inhumanity to man, did more than anything else to destroy our faith in an afterlife. The shocking scale of the inhuman treatment suffered by the prisoners in the camps and the awareness that humans had made a bomb whose destructive capacity was potentially limitless, turned us into a modern Prometheus. On viewing the first atomic bomb test, the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, borrowing from the Bhagavad Gita, said, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” We had stolen the fire of the gods. We had made death our own. Or to return to Nietzsche’s madman:

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?…Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

How could individuals and traditional funeral ceremonies cope with death on such a massive scale? They couldn’t. We couldn’t. Natural disasters had occurred before. Volcanoes and earthquakes had killed in their thousands. But this was different. Europe was strewn with millions of bodies, and they had been killed remorselessly and senselessly by their fellow man. God was not here. He no longer controlled when we died, we had wrested that power from him.

In response to the atrocities of the war, the fledgling social welfare states in Europe joined together to prevent another conflict and engaged in a reconstruction programme based on the all encompassing notion of providing a certain dignity of life for all their citizens. America originated, propagated and tried to live the dream of the 1950s; the suburban life replete with white picket dence, two cars and 2.5 children.

Since then the story is one of the rise and fall of the welfare state, a system which, to even the untrained eye, worked significantly better, albeit slower, than the unregulated growth/greed/inequity system operational in the US. The former socialist French president, Francois Mitterand stated upon leaving politics in 1995 that “I am the last great man”. What he meant was that after him politics would no longer be about political ideals, and the philosophy behind how we organise ourselves in societies, it would descend into the purely economic field and it would be lead by politicians seeking only to administer wealth rather than work towards an ideal society. The 1980s were of course the decade of Reagan, Thatcher and unregulated growth in the financial sector. The end of the decade saw the final death of Soviet Communism, leading Francis Fukuyama to proclaim “the end of history” and economists to arrogantly assert that unregulated American capitalism was the most natural economic system within which human beings could organize themselves. And it seems we bought the lie; hook, line and sinker.

So now we live in the materialist world. And we fill our lives with the things that will give us pleasure in the short term, and our governments make short term policies, concentrating more on getting returned to power rather than discussing and projecting an understanding of who we are as a society and what we stand for. And we ignore or run from the idea of what will happen after we die.

I’m in no position to authoritatively say what comes after death, and I am still struggling with my own ideas of the afterlife. I have however, recently been forced to think more about that “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns” and I can promise that in so doing, I have acquired a greater understanding of the meaning and purpose of my current existence. This was not some dramatic spiritual experience. It was a subtle shifting of my senses, making me more aware of myself and the important things in my life. As the American psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote: “It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive – to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.”

I now firmly believe that if we all took some time to contemplate on that unavoidable event and what follows after, we will focus more on the here and now, be more mindful of our own contentment, that of those around us, and ultimately, the planet as a whole.

The Worst Part of Travelling is Travelling? Rishikesh – Haridwar – Amritsar – McLeod Ganj

I leave Rishikesh on the 27th February and arrive in McLeod Ganj on the 2nd March. In these few days I take 3 taxis, 3 tuk-tuks, 3 buses, 2 rickshaws and 1 train. I spend approximately 20 out of 96 hours on the road. I visit Pathankot, Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, after first seeing Haridwar, Amritsar, Abbatoir, New Jam-Jar and Greater Suburban Reservoir. Okay, those last three I made up, but you get what I’m saying, right? Along the way I receive that little tit-bit of wisdom that forms the highly appropriate title of this piece. The small but significant question mark is entirely my own.

Rishikesh
Having fallen whilst climbing down from a waterfall in Rishikesh, I spend the next morning, the morning I am due to leave, in the clinic and care of Dr. Gupta, a trauma and x-ray specialist. The tiny surgery consists of three rooms; the doctor’s office, the plaster room and the waiting/x-ray room. Personal consultations happen in the presence of about four, and within earshot of all the other patients in the surgery. I see the fractured ribs of a man about my age and the completely snapped humerus of an older man who I am told had a serious motor-cycle accident. I feel like such a pansy with my hairline wrist fracture.

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To me the damage looks minor, so Dr. Gupta must be either relishing his role as a bringer of bad news, or experimenting with his English vocabulary as he repeatedly revels in the word “notorious”. No one word ever pleased anyone so much since Beckett’s Krapp first rolled out that “Spooooolll…”. Between the consultation, the x-ray and the application of the cast I watch some of the cricket in the waiting/x-ray room, painfully aware that I’m the only one who shields my eyes when the x-rays are taken.

In true Carrie Bradshaw fashion I get to thinking about the merits or otherwise of this system. It is so typical of the Indian approach to things. To western eyes it seems haphazard, slapdash, rough and ready, but somehow it seems to work. This is a huge country, with over 1.25 billion people. The population is just lower than China’s and the Indians seem hell-bent on reversing that state of affairs. As a tour guide later tells me, “We Indians are good at breeding…”.  Here, in the towns at least, what is essential is provided and for the most part provided well. I get all the necessary attention and treatment, quickly and cheaply, so what more do I need? I wonder have we cossetted ourselves in Europe too much? Are things like full privacy for those who can afford it more essential than basic medical care for everyone? I remember something Tony Judt wrote in Ill Fares the Land. The most essential idea enshrined in the post-war European world was not high-tax socialist economics, or the prevention of another conflict, but the very simple idea that the state should ensure that most tender and noble of concepts, a basic “dignity of life” for all its citizens. Ireland, mostly ignorant of the war, remained mostly ignorant of this too. In this Indian trauma centre, though it is not private, my medical needs are met and I feel both an equality, and a budding camaraderie with my fellow invalids. There is no little dignity in that.

After a simple slab plaster is applied, the by now positively macabre Dr. Gupta tells me to return in one week after the swelling has gone down, reminding me once again, in case I hadn’t heard, that the fracture is very notorious. I swear all he needs is a cape and some shadowy lighting and he could do a good line in Hammer horror. I thank him, pay him (about 14 euro) and head on my merry way.

Haridwar
Two hours, a tuk-tuk and a bus journey later, I arrive in the strange and oddly wonderful town of Haridwar. It is a holy place for Hindus, where Shiva (he crops up a lot) is said to have dropped some divine nectar and left behind a footprint. He is honoured – if you can call it that – with a giant and absurdly garish statue on the outskirts of the town.

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I must actually qualify that last, rather unfair statement. The modern Indian art that you see is both bold and colourful. There seems to be no cynicism and no notion of higher and lower culture. Quality and style will definitely be considered in the art world but for the general population it seems what is important is the impulse towards representation and the meaning of the chosen images. The style, which might appear to us garishly colourful, and almost childish, is in a way both, and consequently is full of joy and fun. It is, as with many things here, both strange and wonderful.

Haridwar is a tourist town, but one aimed at Indians, not foreigners. It has a bright and noisy, yet not intrusive bazaar, and the daily ganga aarti at the Har-Ki-Pauri ghat, replete with singing monks, huge crowds of people, all manner of offerings to the river, and the omni-present hawkers, is a sight to behold. I spend only half a day here but it would merit at least one more. I meet my Australian friends again, who are on their way south to see the tigers in Ranthambore, and we share some gulab jamun, a delicious soft ball of curd boiled in sticky sweet rose water. I have a late train to catch and both despite and because of the fact I have spent the last couple of days with them, I am sad to be leaving. I am once again on my own, a state I am slowly becoming familiar and comfortable with, but the distraction of other people is always a welcome respite.

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Waiting for the train is an experience I am not eager to repeat any time soon. In India you get used to people staring at you but this is the first time I have really felt intimidated. I keep my bag on my back and walk up and down the platform. I have a song in my head. Cold Water by Damien Rice. It is a lonely, a plaintive air.

Technically I am in first class but I have no bedding and none is provided so I spend most of the night shivering. I am travelling with 3 Indians, none of whom have any English, but all of whom are perfectly friendly. I am inclined however, to doubt that, when I wake in the morning to find my phone is missing. Perhaps I dropped it, or perhaps it was stolen, I can’t be sure. I am not overly concerned though, I figure it was bound to happen at some stage. As with Delhi belly, some of these things are a case of when, rather than if…

Amritsar
The majority of Amritsar is noisy and dirty, like a miniature Delhi, but it has a very different atmosphere. From my rickshaw driver on the first day all through my time here I do not meet a local I don’t feel I can trust. This is a Sikh town and I come to learn a little about their culture, chiefly the emphasis on honest dealing and hospitality. I shack up at the Guru Ram Das hostel where foreigners can stay for free (a donation is strongly encouraged) and eat most of my meals in the huge food hall at the Golden Temple where a gigantic and amorphous army of volunteers feeds over 100,000 people per day, for free. During my second meal there I get talking, or rather miming, with a very pleasant local. My hindi still extends only as far as “thank you”, “hello”, “I am ok”, and thanks to my father, “Can you get me a pint of Guinness?”, which you can imagine is of very little use in a mostly teetotal country…After our meal he takes me down to the great washing up area and, as my cast prevents me from getting my hands wet, I make myself somewhat useful ferrying plates, bowls and cups to and from the washing stations.

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The first evening I am in Amritsar I head out to the border ceremony at Wagah. Here the Indian and Pakistani border forces engage in a pompous and bizarre display of high kicks and silly hats, compèred by a man dressed as a Soviet-era gymnastics coach, mercilessly wielding a microphone and possessing a seemingly limitless supply of energy. The whole thing has to be seen to be believed, and even then it’s not easy.

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Returning to my hostel I am abducted by a trio of Indian students who take me to a Hindu Temple laid out like a series of caves. I decide not to compare it to a mini golf course in Courtown called Pirates Cove, but I actually don’t think they would have been offended by that. There is much openness and humour in the Hindu religion. They take me to the Golden Temple again for dinner and we have water balls – hollow fried balls with various flavoured fillings. These are friendly, worldly, educated young people and represent a side of India I haven’t yet seen.

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I have one day left in Amritsar and I choose to spend the morning on the hunt for my missing phone. I usually try and walk where I can and so I set out for the train station. This desire is obviously not to the liking of the city’s rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers, who proposition me at every available opportunity. I feel like a piece of meat. Though perhaps in a predominantly vegetarian country that analogy (or is it a metaphor, I can never tell) doesn’t quite work. Twenty minutes into my walk and a bird shits on my shoulder. Taking this as a sign from the gods (the Hindus have over 30 million of them – the bird probably being one) I give up, hop in a tuk-tuk, and ask for the train station. It takes us the best part of two minutes to get there…

When I inquire at the lost property desk if my phone has been handed in, the woman doesn’t so much look at me as if I have two heads, but rather that I have ten, and all of them are the butt of the best joke she’s heard all year. So that’s a no, then.

I think it might be time to move on…

The next day, in the company of Shane and Eilís, two fellow Paddys who are currently living in Melbourne, I take one more tuk-tuk, my final two buses and, to round everything off, one last taxi. Though the last few days have been a bit crazy I have thoroughly enjoyed them. Amritsar is a fascinating place and I am starting to feel like I am getting to grips with this country. So when Shane remarks that “the worst part of travelling is travelling” I understand him completely but, despite having to wear my rain jacket inside the bus, due to the leaky roof, I don’t quite agree. And when finally, 7 hours later, we step out of the car in McLeod Ganj, I am reminded of one of the main reasons I came to India in the first place. I am in the Himalayas.

Catching Up – Rishikesh Part 2

Time is subjective.

Today, as I write this, time is a quagmire, standing still – unreal and hazy. The last few weeks it was a bullet train I was clinging on to for dear life. I need some space to think and to reflect. I need time.

It is now nearly a month after the events I will write about in this post and I fear what few and foggy moments of reflection or insight I had at the time are lost. What were they? There was something about the cast on my arm and the notion of freedom, a consideration of the virtues of walking spurred by a hike in a misty forest, the letting go of one’s ghosts. I regret not writing these down. I wouldn’t for a second contend that they were incredibly perceptive or profound but one thing I have come to realize is that without evaluating our thoughts and actions, we let time take us where it will. In fact it is even arguable how much we can consider our lives our own. We live the inverse of Descartes’s mantra – Cogito Ergo Sum – I think therefore I am. I’m reminded of a motivational poster at the Men-Tsee Khung Astrological Institute in McLeod Ganj – “Don’t count the days, make the days count.”

Much has happened since last I wrote, and the intervening experiences are now distilled through more recent ones, through different moods, altering them significantly. I will hazard an account of them though, for the record’s sake if nothing else. First I should talk more about Rishikesh. There are a few things you might be interested to know:

1) It’s an incredibly beautiful place:

The green river races along between several small beaches and ghats (stepped platforms going down to the river) which are sparsely populated with bathing Indians, and the steep hills above the town are rich in light brown earth and dense forest.

2) The people are wonderfully friendly:

Barring the odd persistent postcard hawker or opportunistic sadhu, the denizens of the town are respectful, hospitable, smiling and happy. This, in particular, is a welcome change from Delhi. Though Rishikesh is a big enough town in itself, it has the friendly vibe of a village.

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3) There are animals everywhere:

From the dozens of cows meandering through the narrow streets to the stray dogs lounging in the sun, and engaging in LOUD TERRITORIAL BATTLES RIGHT OUTSIDE MY WINDOW at night, the monkeys hanging around the bridges stealing what food they can, or jumping into hotel rooms and pooing on the beds, and the little cat at the Zorba cafe who, by dint of seemingly being the only domesticated animal in town, is never short of affection.

4) Poo is so in right now:

The heat means that flip flops are the footwear of choice, but the continued refusal of the animal kingdom to adopt the sanitation policies of the new Modi government means you need to watch your step. One trick is to concentrate on lifting and dropping your foot like a plunger, rather than swinging it like a pendulum. Believe me, you definitely don’t want to catch a fresh pile of dung on an upswing. Apart from being everywhere, poo is often the topic in the most fashionable salons. One can walk through many a cafe and hear the whole spectrum of experiences – frequencies, consistencies, sizes and colours, often interspersed with the enviably smug gloat of a “semi-solid”.

The friends I have made here become regular and regularly entertaining companions. With two of them, a Polish carer who lives in England and a Finnish blacksmith – yes you heard correctly – I hike up to the Neelkaanth Temple, the exact spot where Lord Shiva is said to have sucked all the poison from the oceans, turning his throat blue in the process. He was obviously not hampered by the fact the temple is 1,000 metres above sea level. We are joined by a stray dog from the village whom we name Jabba (short for Jabberwocky). He accompanies us all the way, protecting us from malevolent looking peacocks, murderous hoardes of guinea fowl and motley crews of hungry monkeys. At the top we make a haphazard offering of some hazelnuts to Shiva, and take a shower with the locals in the fresh mountain water spewing from the only village drainpipe.

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Jabba, our spirit guide...
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Jabba takes care of those troublesome monkeys...

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The three intrepid explorers!
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The Neelkaanth Temple.

Feeling refreshed, if residually soggy, we share a taxi back towards town with a group of Indian medical students, butchering some Rihanna and Red Hot Chilli Peppers songs along the way. Myself and Petteri, the Finnish blacksmith (I just love saying it) briefly form a two man all air band, and have our first, and only ever, gig.

At lunch in the Little Buddha cafe, we meet an Indian meditation master who quickly becomes a welcome friend and informative guide to Indian culture. I take two meditation classes with him and would do more if I didn’t have to move on so soon. In the next couple of days we regularly attend the ganga aarti (the evening ceremony of floating bunches of flowers and candles down the river), hang out and chat. The pace of life is wonderfully relaxed and the only pressure I feel comes from the steadily ticking hands of time.

(A quick side note. It has become clear to me that you can tell a lot about the character of a place from the wi-fi passwords! Here in spiritual Rishikesh the restaurants have taken sentimentality to almost cringe-worthy levels: “Sweet people”, “I love you”, “Buddha love” etc. The less wholesome, but possibly more realistic hypothesis is that these passwords were designed so the locals could hit on the foreign women. Later in McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, the passwords are the emotive if slightly unimaginative “Free/Save/Love Tibet”.)

With only two days left, I bump into an Australian couple with whom I had previously spent an afternoon hotel-hunting and we arrange to hike up to a nearby waterfall. Anyone familiar with my Facebook updates will know what happens next. For those who aren’t, the following photos should leave little to the imagination.

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Soon after my mishap my wrist begins to swell but I am eager to join the Australians in exploring the famous ruined ashram at which the Beatles stayed. We are met at the gate by a surly looking man who insists the fee is 100 rupees per person. There are no signs, or tickets, or tourist information of any kind. He is clearly just an opportunistic scoundrel with a padlock. Despite the inconvenience he causes I cannot help but admire his chutzpah.

The ashram is eerie. I cannot tell if it is simply the usual atmosphere of ruined buildings or if something more sinister is, or was, at work. During the Maharishi’s lifetime there were serious accusations of financial and sexual wrongdoing. I find myself thinking of the danger of having power over another person. To this day the guru-student relationship almost invariably puts a man in a position of immense power over the life of another person, often at a distinctly vulnerable time of their life. I cannot let go of the sense of unease that thought creates. I have no reason to doubt that these men are extremely holy, but the old adage that power corrupts is all too often proved. My attendances at Mooji’s satsangs, where some people profess their desire to kill themselves and others prostrate themselves at his feet, do little to assuage my concerns.

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I start to feel my budding spiritual journey must be put on hold. I have seen much that has inspired and much that has concerned me. I know that this specific path is not for me, though I am grateful for the guidance and companionship of all my new friends along the way.  Over the next few weeks I will resume the life of a regular backpacker, staying and eating in the cheapest possible places, haggling with tuk-tuk drivers and finally succumbing to Delhi belly. For now I make a promise to myself, one which I intend to keep. I will return to these spiritual questions, I will try and find something deeper. As Brutus says with beautifully fragile repetition to his fallen comrade;

“I will find time Cassius,
I will find time.”

The Way Out is the Way In – Rishikesh 1

The mighty Ganges, at this point still a rapid glacial green, divides the spiritual town of Rishikesh into North and South, but I come to find the more pertinent division here is between East and West. This is where westerners come in search of that peace and spirituality that is seemingly so lacking at home, the place to which the Beatles retired to write the White Album, a haven of ashrams and satsangs, yoga and gurus. And for every orange robed sadhu begging a few rupees in exchange for a blessing, there is an American or European in full yoga attire speaking of their liberation, their guru, or their past lives. For me it is a heady; at times inspiring, at times cloying mix, and I come to learn, as with any spiritual location, the line between true faith and trendy consumption can be a fine one.

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=JiL5JpUtjqY

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The hills above the town.

Taking a night bus from Delhi I arrive in the small hours and hop in a tuk-tuk to the small hotel I’ve booked. The drive is steeply uphill and it seems miraculous we make it to the top. As I soon discover, that word and its implications will crop up quite often during my time here.

As it’s not yet 7 my hotel is closed, so my driver offers to ferry me to another place. In hindsight I know he was being kind but my residual fears and disinclination to trust people, thoroughly stimulated in Delhi, has a grip on me still. I say I am ok and will wait. He probably knows, better than I do, that I’ll be waiting a long time, but his protestations fall on deaf ears. The brief glimpse of Rishikesh I got on the journey in has already piqued my interest and I am anxious to explore, if slightly encumbered by my 8kgs of luggage. Giving up on my hotel I make my way towards the river down a laneway, passing a procession of donkeys carrying cement up the hill, a couple of cows nosing amongst the rubbish, some stray dogs, a few monkeys, and an American woman named Joy, looking as lost as I must. Together we have some chai and breakfast, inadvertently and rather shame-facedly rousing a restauranteur from his sleeping bag to throw together a great omelette and some pakora. Despite missing his beauty sleep he refuses to charge me the full price for my omelette as he is missing the cheese. His embarrassment, friendliness and generosity is both disarming and humbling. I am liking this place more and more.

The next few days are a whirlwind of what my new companions might call universal synchronicity. Things seem to just fall into place for me and by not actively pursuing or denying anything I float along happily like the beautiful Ganges. Joy takes me to see Mooji, her guru, who is giving regular talks on the search for enlightenment. I meet many people on that very path and am generously inducted into the vast ocean of the spiritual.

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Chilling on the beach

We discuss those wonderfully fascinating things that science seemingly can’t explain. Such as the fact that the Ganges itself is so polluted it should no longer support life, and yet many fish, and even a few remaining dolphins, eke out an existence. Apparently it has an inexplicably high level of oxygen that prevents diseases from becoming epidemic.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17134270

We talk about the weight of the human soul; how there is roughly 0.01 gram of body mass that cannot be accounted for and that disappears when we die. We talk about the strange effects of playing classical music to plants, how water molecules change and react when spoken to soothingly and with words of love. We wonder how this affects humans, since our bodies are composed of 80% water. Perhaps the growth and happiness we feel when we receive the same love is not emotional or mental, but a chemical and physical reaction. I cannot decide which I find more magical, the fact there are things science can’t explain or the fact that science has shown us the workings of the natural world are truly astonishing, and as perfect as if they had been entirely designed.

I dive in to this spiritual ocean, but constantly find myself tethered by something. Some nagging doubts, perhaps a bit of cynicism, I’m not sure. What I do know is that I’m annoyed at myself. I feel I should be trying harder, diving in deeper, opening myself more.

My desire, and consequent frustration, is intensified because I had hoped to find something spiritual on this trip. After the break up I was thoroughly dissatisfied with myself. I found myself lacking in compassion, in gratitude, in honesty. I hated how I could, and did, cause others so much pain, wanted simultaneously to be rid of that responsibility and to be better able to handle it. At this time I found Buddhist literature helpful and wanted to see the world from which it came, experience something of the life it preached.

So the fact that now I am here and I’m holding back is irksome. Maybe though it is a natural response. Too often around me there are people who, to borrow an Americanism, seem to have drunk too much of the Cool-Aid. People who, in claiming that the Eastern, or specifically Indian, way of doing things is completely superior to the West, actually overstretch their case, and undermine it.

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A chai and a good book by the banks of the Ganges.

Maybe I am being too closed off, or maybe my focus is misplaced. At one of Mooji’s satsangs he says “The way out is the way in”. He means that the way out of the natural suffering in the world is by inquiring and learning more about yourself, and your internal workings. I soon find that I am destined to do a good bit more of that over the following days.