Central America was never on my destination list for this trip…
Back in June, I was in Asia, in Kathmandu, the other side of the world. The next logical step after that would be to hop skip and a’jump over to Tibet, Myanmar, or Thailand etc, but if you read my recent blog You Can Go Your Own Way, then you’ll know I threw logic out the window some time ago.
After Denso ultimately departed Nepal destined for Blighty 😢 I had a decent period of procrastination & inertia, somewhat stuck whilst I digested my Indian adventure and mused about my present situation in Nepal: y’see, it wasn’t really the right season to be there – monsoon season was upon us so the humidity was simply ghastly darling.
I was surrounded by keen beans all pumped and ready to go, or freshly back from Trekking, but to be honest I just wasn’t feeling it, and I mean, what the hell else do you do in Nepal if it’s not trekking (FML)? I just had this feeling of not really knowing what I was doing there – but hey! you’re in Nepal, so you know, you suck it up and enjoy the present moment! Time operates differently now, and the Downtime is as important as The Go.
Enjoyment (read: many Everest beers) led to chance meetings (read: synchronicity) with Andy, and the goddess that is Kali Indigo (off’ve El Salvador). Whilst sat licking our hungover wounds (late) one morning in our Kathmandu hostel (Alobar1000), she told me about the Moon Course in San Marcos del Lago, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. It sounded perfect, and just what I was looking for. Later that same day in an entirely separate conversation, my roommate also told me about the Moon Course, that she’d done it and that it was life changing.
OK Universe, I get the hint.
After revelling in the delights of Nepal, a month and a half later I was booking 4 tickets, voluntarily subjecting myself to 4 flights (sorry Rebs), celebrating my 36th birthday in New York JFK and Dallas Airport, and all in all a 52 hour door-to-door journey to the other side of the world to arrive in Guatemala – from where the Rainbow takes its colours – and eventually my ultimate destination, Lake Atitlan.
I was lucky enough to spend 2 marvellous months and 7 magical days by the Lake, I found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
I leave Del Lago, San Marcos and Guatemala changed, with it imprinted upon my soul and forever grateful that I came. Maltiox!
Today, I touched down in South America – a brand new shiny continent for me to explore, and another unexpected destination on my journey. First stop: Peru, and two glorious weeks with Richard Bold!
Whilst I was sad to leave my Guatemalan home and family behind I know I take them with me, and I can’t think of a better reason to move on and discover the next part of my treasure hunt – dam, I’ve missed that boy!
Only one more sleep till Bold Times are a’foot, and our 15 days of Funder begins!
When was the last time you tested your boundaries, to see how far you could push yourself? Or totally switched off from the grid, no screens, no contact, no news, no talking, no looking even. On the 25th June, I completed a 10 day Vipassana Meditation course in Nepal, and it was one of the most game changing experiences of my life.
So what is it?
The word “Vipassana” means seeing things as they really are, not as you would like them to be. It’s a process of self purification by self observation, a technique developed and taught by the Buddha. It’s free and available to absolutely anyone, regardless of your ethnicity or religious tendencies. It’s a universal technique that teaches you a way of life, a code of conduct, an art of living. The goal is to learn how to live peacefully and harmoniously, how to have control over the mind, and how to live with the spirit of the mind full of love, compassion and goodwill (man). To learn, all you have do is surrender yourself to a meditation camp for 10 days, and agree to 5 precepts:
1. To abstain from killing any living creature
2. To abstain from stealing
3. To abstain from all sexual activity
4. To abstain from telling lies
5. To abstain from all intoxicants
Let be honest, we’re all just worried about #5… Ohh, and the 10 days of Noble Silence… Yeah, that… No talking, no gestures, no eye contact, no reading, no writing. Just you, your thoughts, and S. N. Goenka’s dulcet tones.
The schedule is demanding and, like Pavlovs Dogs, our days revolved around bells – some made us salivate, others made us “starrrrt agaiiiiiin”… the 4am wake up bell, the call to meditation bell, the “time for food” bell, from 4am to 9pm every day, 11 hours of meditation and noble silence.
The first few days are all about breathing…. Like, a LOT of breathing, but just your natural breath. I couldn’t get my monkey mind to shut the fuck up – it’s surprising when you try reallllllly hard to not think of anything how much comes into your head.
The conditions were challenging: the humidity was about 80% and the fans worked occasional, which meant I sweated my arse off for most of the day, sweating out all my impurities and toxins. Purging my system inside and out. It was like rehab…
Soon the schedule, the structure and the technique started to take over and I entered into almost a dream-like state. My inner world became so huge when I fell silent and just observed the world around me. In the beginning, I did anything to keep my mind off the deafening silence in between the meditations, but after a while I found pleasure in stopping to smell the flowers, to watch the ants (FIFA), to just listen to the birds. I know, I know how funny that sounds, and trust me I was as amused as you, but as I shut out the distractions, I left a quiet and peaceful mind, a mind that started to feel so vast and powerful, so full of potential.
It’s not necessary to have to do the lotus pose for this meditation, just to find a comfortable sitting position that means you can sit for a period of time. Despite months of sitting on nothing but divans, my western body still cried out in pain in a crossed leg position… My Knees, then my back, a numb bum, pins and needles in my feet on constant rotation.
I made the ultimate mistake of looking around and comparing myself to my other inmates, who of course all looked so serene and comfortable, certainly not fidgeting every 5 minutes like me. Seriously, How the fuck are they all doing this? I tried so many cushion configurations I lost count. By the end of the course, everyone had their preferred set up, and watching them get them ready before the determined 1-hour-absolutely-no-moving-allowed sittings (that were introduced on day 4, 3 times daily) was like watching a golf pro set upfor that a drive of the 1st tee. A check-list of about 40 and everything.just.so.
Why did I do it?
What was I expecting? Some kind of transcendental journey that would answer all my questions and give me some kind of out of body experience. I feel a little foolish to think how much I wanted from it, how much I expected it to be like a magic wand, to fix me and take me places, a way of finding all the answers to all the things I worry about. There are certainly some meditations/methods that can do that, this just isn’t that kind of thing.
I hoped it would help me achieve stillness, strength, clarity, balance, help me tune into my emotions and intuition, to see my own potential and to hold space for myself. The good news is, it helped me achieve all these things, and the technique was so simple, so real, and as a result wayyyy more visceral.
How did it make me feel?
Initially, I felt apprehensive, frustrated, uncomfortable (sitting down for 11 hours may seem easy, but I challenge any of you to sit on the floor for even 15 mins without fidgeting); by the end I felt so happy, relaxed, peaceful, grounded, and more in control of my mind. Ultimately, I guess, a whole lot more aware/sober – it’s a 100% natural high.
It felt like I was unlocking parts my brain, taking a journey of insight. The mind is a muscle, it’s like I was exercising and relaxing it at the same time, like teaching it a new trick: Developing my faculty to focus within. Just to be, rather than trying to be. To meet with pleasure and with pain and treat those two imposters just the same: it’s allllll about equanimity baby. It all balances out if you just let it go, and you feel so much more free.
If this made me happy, does that mean I was un-happy before? Yes and No, but for me this gives me a new way of seeing the world and a way to slowly eradicate negative reactions – there’s something in that. It needs a few more goes to practice and to figure out how I realistically integrate it into my everyday life, but there’s definitely something in that.
Am I happier now? Yes. Am I free from having wibbly moments of erratic emotion, tearful pathetic moments of ineptitude or flashes of anger? No, I’m not out of those woods yet, but am I coping with those moments a lot better? Yes.
“Good for you” I hear you say, but why should you care? How could this help you?
It’s been useful to understand that everyone has a different experience, that everyone takes from it in a different way, and that you can only learn through your own experience.
Having said that, if you could see that there’s such a simple way to liberate yourself from tensions, you’d wish that for everyone. I know not everyone can surrender 10 days to experience this for themselves. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have been able to follow my curiosity. It’s not my job to tell you to go, or to teach you the technique, all you need to know is that Vipassana is a universal technique that can help you exercise a healthy mind, happiness is a nice side effect.
It’s NOT some cult or sect or religious rite of passage. I’m still me – I’m just trying to be the happiest me I can be (cheesiest comment I’ll make all day, probably).
The main aim is basically “May all beings be happy”, which is basically a nice thing. It doesn’t turn you into some reaction-less vegetable, it just turns you on to a different way of thinking. It’s a sort of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which gives you choices about your thoughts.
One week on, and I’m reflecting on that pure joy feeling I had as I walked out the meditation hall for the last time, and how to adapt/apply this to my every day life. It’s going to be a challenge, but one I’m happy to undertake.
In the words of 90’s band En Vogue, “Free your miiiiind, and the rest will follow!”
My basic get-you-through Hindi has been coming along nicely, but since Kashmiri, Dogri, Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi are all spoken here, the language barrier is a little tougher – cue lots of sign language, patience and smiles, which thankfully the people of Jammu & Kashmir have in spades.
The overnight night train from Delhi pulled into Jammu just over a week ago, and it’s like we landed in a completely different country. A lot of Kashmir looks like a war zone, exacerbated by the omnipresent Indian Army/Military Police that punctuate the highways (there’s still a bit of a spat with Pakistan), but a great deal more looks utterly spectacular.
After nearly 10 years clocking up 100’s of driving hours on some challenging roads, Dumball made me match-fit for the drives that were to come:
1. The drive from Jammu to Srinagar: like driving in the mountains/on the roads of Albania, Hungary, Monte Negro and the Western Ghats all combined.
This is the ONLY way to reach Srinagar by road, so that makes it their M1 and main supply artery. Chuck in A LOT of Trucks, traffic, herds of goats, horses, shepherds, all competing for the road (in both directions), a few landslides to dodge, hair pin bends, pot holes, dramatic drops, gridlock, men at work, assertive aggressive overtaking (on blind corners, obvs), military police presence, a toll booth! (fifa) with opportunistic tradesmen taking full advantage by trying to sell us Cricket bats (for reals), boxes of cherries, strawberries, pashminas… You know, all the things you need 6 hours into a 12 hour journey – this is the life force of India that just never goes away, and I love her more for it.
2. The drive from Gagangir to Leh. Just six little words. Looks like an awfully small affair doesn’t it? Completely belies the spectacular 12 hour/350km journey that climbs and crosses the Himalayan Zoji La Mountain up and over into Ledakh – a road that grunts and grinds, climbs and zig-zags relentlessly, sometimes slicing through the glaciers and snow drifts.
The narrow passes, perilous drops and occasional (often) bad condition of the road means there ain’t too much room for two way traffic, so you have to wait at the bottom in a somewhat orderly queue with no real idea of what’s going on until the last of the descending group of traffic has passed by the Traffic Officials, indicating your turn to make the ascent.
The condition of the road elicited some squeaky-bum-time considering I was in a Jeep that was fit for purpose, and then an idiosyncratic massive Indian truck hurtles past in the opposite direction, it’s customised metallic decoration glinting in the sun like its throwing a metaphoric “fuck you”, all guns blazing, not giving a shit and showing us all how it’s done – how the bejesus did that thing even fit up here?!
We watched the vast, enormous landscape change and grow from the dirty back seat windows of our very bouncy Mahindra jeep, being thrown left and right, both hands on the Jesus handles.
The peak of the pass is at 11,650ft, and surrounded by Himalayan snow capped mountains. No sooner had we hurtled past that than the landscape changed up again to mountain ranges of epic Tolkien-esque proportions with Mars and Lunar-like terrain, and it just didn’t stop either.
The drive to Leh was one of the most challenging, varied, awe inspiring roads I’ve ever had the pleasure to survive/drive on, with the most phenomenal, uninterrupted mountain landscapes I’ve ever seen. I’m out of superlatives. There’s almost nothing in between except for an abundance of Tibetan prayer flags adorning various stupas, flapping in the wind to remind you in which direction you’re headed, and to give a bit of moral support. Not much hope of a wee stop around these parts.
India is just bonkers – a land of mysteries with secrets and wonders in so many places. On Tuesday we’re heading up to Srinegar in Kashmir way oop north, almost as far north as you can go before things start to get a bit awks with Pakistan. About time we had a bit of spice! Kashmir’s going to be unquestionably beautiful, and lucky for us it turns out we have some even better reasons to go!
“The Magnetic Hill, located at an altitude of 11,000 feet above sea level in the hills of Ladakh is one of the most unusual places to visit in India. The Mystery: Cars driving up the hill get pulled up of their own accord. That is, one can drive up here with the ignition of their vehicles turned off.”
FACTS. I actually love that the mystery of this exciting phenomenon is only an optical illusion, resulting from the hill’s gravitational pull. It’ll probably end up being a bit shit, and not quite as advertised. #soindia.
There are some other decent detour ideas for Dumball 2017 that Fletch and I can discuss over Chai when he flies in on Tuesday. Beyond excited to hear his David Bowie impression, he’s just got to nail the jet lag.
The title of this blog’s also a cheeky plug for my friends mysterious and immersive gaming experience Lady Chastity’s Reserve, which you should all totally check out by the way. They’ve got venues in London and Brighton. Get involved!
The title of this blog doesn’t even begin to describe the sheer amount of activity and life crammed in to the magical streets of Varanasi, THE holiest of the seven holy cities in India and the oldest city in the world, still standing strong on the banks of the Ganges after 3000+ years: a melting pot, where both life and death come together. Devout Hindus come here to cremate their dead, and believe they can wash away their sins by bathing here – I’ll pass on that, respectfully, for now.
“Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, And looks twice as old as all of them put together” Mark Twain
On day one, as I navigated/u-turned my way towards the Ganges River through the narrow alleys of the rabbit warren, I was met with fervent locals, Steves, Goats, motorbikes, mopeds, bicycles, countless sacred Cows/Bulls lolling on past (giving each a touch of respect), cheeky monkeys looking down and making mischief, Men with shrouded loved ones aloft their shoulders on bamboo stretchers, headed towards the Ganga Ghats (river front stairs) to be cremated, or covered in ash (erm, it’s human ash) returning – all sharing the alleys, and sometimes all at once.
Until today I couldn’t say I’d seen a dead body, let alone 9 being cremated at once. I didn’t know how I’d react but I was strangely enamoured. Varanasi has its own flavour of magic, play, illusion, intensity, over crowding and esoteric party atmosphere (considering), yet somehow it’s peaceful, I like it. Who knows what tonight/tomorrow brings…
I’d recommend staying at Shiva Guest House – a little hard to find but inexpensive, a/c, helpful staff, and puts you right amongst it. For some good cheap grub, I’d also recommend hitting the Dosa Cafe.
My favourite tactic whenever I arrive anywhere new is to get high up from street level, get my bearings as well as a healthy dose of horizon. Tonight’s venue is the Dolphin Roof Top restaurant – a perfect spot to soak up the cocohophany of Varanasi by night and watch the sun go down over the Ganges.
Day 112: Kolkata – India’s second biggest city: simultaneously noble and squalid, cultured and desperate, and I fell in love instantly. A much welcomed friendly tonic following the Hyderabad fiasco, and I threw myself into the madness.
Poverty’s certainly in your face here, more so than I’ve seen elsewhere, and starkly contrasting with the colonial buildings, air conditioned shopping malls and old fashioned service. The streets are packed with your usual market traders, mechanics, people beavering away fixing this or that, always enterprising. Most places in India seem to have “A” thing you then see repeated on every street, here it seems to be welding (no masks, obvs), Enfield bikes and mechanics.
Kolkata’s streets are also paved with bhar – the standard vessel for chai. Fragments of the handmade dusky orange clay cups lie everywhere, remnants of a piping hot 4 rupee chai that’s been smashed back into the ground from whence it came, only to be replenished the very next day with a fresh batch, knocked up by the bhar wallahs. Street vendors conjure up who-knows-what Bengali food that tastes delicious, if you’re willing to take the risk (I did).
It’s a much leafier city, with plenty of parks and open spaces that seem to make it easier to breathe in the 39 degree heat. Getting around is super easy too – your pick of an efficient air-con metro, bashed up trams, bashed up buses, bashed up Ambassadors, TukTuks, horse drawn carts or man powered rikshaw, all vying for their space on the same road to get you from A to B through the busy traffic, of course beep beep beeping all the while. Or better yet, a good old fashioned stroll down the back alleys where I got a much better feel of Kolkata.
The light skinned Indian’s just left for Delhi, and I’m off to Varanasi tonight – just a short 14 hour/760km overnight train journey away. By morning, I’ll be by the Ganges River, with a whole new gang of Steves. They say “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favourite stop of all.” I say, it’s got some hefty competition, and I’m ready for the challenge.
1. Experiencing Auroville – a planned Utopia built in the dust of N.East Tamil Nadu, about 15km north of Puducherry and inland from the Bay of Bengal. Auroville is a concept community, built by two visionaries in the 60’s to “help humanity move beyond its present limitations into the next stage of its evolutionary adventure, the supramental consciousness.” Riiiiiiiight. This is out there, even for me (given recent events). Based on really great intentions, Auroville just comes across a little bonkers and cultish. You must sign up to a waiting list a few days in advance, and the intro video you have to watch before you may enter the Matrimandir is like that bit with Richard Attenborough at the start of Jurassic Park, felt just as prophetic and just makes it feel, all, theme park’y n’that. Sorry (not sorry).
Access granted, we got to visit the Matrimandir, the “soul of the city”, a giant gold golf ball looking thing with truly beautiful architecture, but lots of rules on how to enjoy it – wholly alien to anything I’ve ever seen in India, or anywhere for that matter, and a bit like a space ship, but utterly magnificent nonetheless. “The Inner Chamber in the upper hemisphere of the Matrimandir is completely white, with white marble walls and deep, white carpeting. In the centre sits a pure crystal-glass globe which suffuses a ray of electronically guided sunlight that falls on it through an opening at the apex of the sphere.” Now THAT was a sight to behold, if you look past all the eccentricities, and don’t speak, or touch that, or walk there, and put on the socks, PUT ON THE SOCKS!
2. Back to Chennai (Tamil Nadu), where it allllll began just under 4 months ago. A chance to reminisce on my first impressions of India, and how much has happened since we all drove out those gates of the Leela Palace in convoy – missing my dear friends and family back home, and my fellow Dumballers.
3. A sweaty and fond farewell to Denso and Jim, aka “Team Ginger”, as Denso leaves India with another soon-to-expire Visa, this time heading to Nepal and the next stage of her journey, in more ways than one. So much to say about the last 100+ days, but she knows it all already. Bonne chance mon amie!
4. Reaching Hyderabad, (the capital of the southern Indian state of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh) and with it the first low point on my trip. Suddenly struck with an irrational fear and vulnerability from being alone in a big Hydera-bad city. The pollution/smell/traffic so bad it gave me a nosebleed! Pathetic and panic stricken I followed my gut and made a plan to run away, fortunate enough to be able to throw money at the problem – not before I’d had a word with myself: There I was – a western affluent woman, with a passport, free to explore the world, not burdened with the stress of working, hoovering the stairs, or having to go to Tescos, suddenly rendered inert by my own imagination and concept of “fear”. Whilst the feeling was real, what do I really know of fear? Come the f**k on Holliday, chin up and crack on.
5. Quote: “I Am an Old Man and Have Known a Great Many Troubles, But Most of Them Never Happened.” Mark Twain
6. Heading North, I arrived in Kolkata in West Bengal this morning, immediately feeling more comfortable despite the 3am heat. Yellow Ambassadors queued up neatly outside the airport – a familiar sight and a warm welcome. Excited to be in one of my Dads favourite cities (when captaining for BA), which makes me feel closer to home, and heaps keen to explore all his recommendations tomorrow.
7. Writing this from Royal Guest House, Kolkatta, watching Life of Pi with a glass of Old Monk in hand – hello old friend!