Is there Life on Mars?

Is there Life on Mars?

“Hello! You are from England?”

“Yes! You speak English?!”

“Yes! I learned it!”

“Fantastic! Where did you learn it?”

“Yes!”

“….” 

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. 

 

*before you say it, I know it’s upside down – I can’t fix it
 
  

Handmade Mysteries

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! 

A Day In The Life…

Bottomless Thali served with effortless beauty on banana leaves and eaten with one hand, the spectacle of watching hot sweet chai brewed by the side of the road, scalding your fingers and throat as you drink it, the call of the lyre bird, the rust bucket scooters, the Hindustani Ambassadors, Kites and Eagles circling overhead, piles of spent coconuts, kids playing cricket, everywhere, cranky air-con fans, ill fitting idiosyncratic mosquito nets, endless negotiation, street dogs running wild and yet always keeping you company, cows in the street, the fervent steamy production of simple delicious fast food, the chaos, the head wobbles, the glint in the eyes…

It’s the small details in India, the ones you don’t think to mention when someone asks during a phone call to home “So how’s it going?” that are so rich in meaning. These are the ones that seduce you, and ultimately make you fall in love.

Click to watch  A Day In the life of India

They said it would happen

They said it would happen

Day 91: Varkala

You don’t have to be in India for long, or go very far until you see someone practising Yoga or meditating on the beach at sunrise or sunset, or come across someone who wants to tell you about this and that practice they do, had done to them somewhere, or their particular philosophy on life.  That kind of thing just happens all over the place here.  

The allure of the taste, texture and colour of life mixed with my curious enthusiasm to learn new things means I like to try everything at least once in life.  

So far, in the past 91 days I’ve had my playing cards read, learnt about Chinese astrology and Indian Sanskrit, been given some pretty hard core acupressure on my hands and feet, been taught Pranayam (breath control), witnessed EFT (emotional freedom technique) transform a dear friends life, for the better, forever. 

I’ve been taught about the Shamans of the Amazon and Ayahuasca, about Mayan Astrology – how it syncs with the moon phases and the planet we live on, and explain why our man-made calendar makes us all feel like we’re always short on time.  I’ve been gifted a Bowen Therapy massage that left me feeling like a blast of energy was bursting up through my body like a tree trunk on fire!  I just can’t deny that that happened!  Shan’t. Don’t care what you say or if you tut tut contemptuously.  It did.  I now know that was my chakras bursting wide open (stick with me), but before I went I had no idea what it would do or what it was all about.  I had absolutely no preconceptions or expectations.  I just went on a whim after seeing a friend come back from her own massage literally glowing. G.L.O.W.I.N.G. and had my own glowing explosive experience. Just wow.

Through an energy exchange (you scratch my back, I’ll massage your foot, kind of thing), Sonia (the resident Reike master here at Shiva Gardens) asked me to teach her the little I knew about Mayan astrology.  In doing so, we realised we had a much bigger connection than we’d ever anticipated.  I learnt more about it in the process, and in exchange she taught me more about my own Chinese Astrology, Karmic astrology, Numerology and how it all ties into the moon.  No money exchanged hands, just knowledge, self realisation and so much to contemplate. Oh, it’s all going on! 

In other news, since I’ve been in Varkala (and this is the cheesiest phrase I’m going to say today), yoga and meditation has found me, and bloody hell.  I went to a sunset yoga session with me mate jack and Rijas, again on a whim (and the promise of a sunset swim/beer after), and was enriched by the feeling and was encouraged to keep practicing by Rijas.  

Shiva Gardens offers morning yoga sessions with Maya, so I tried basic Hatha Yoga with a dash of Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation) at the end – it uses a moon gong (yes, I know….) to basically help put you into a deep trance, and if you’re lucky open up your third eye, or just put you to sleep. It’s a sublime way to start your day, and that gong just set me on some kind of new path.  It’s ridiculous. 

I’d practiced mindfulness at home a bit, on and off before I came away, but inevitably the pace of life, fatigue or the occasional hangover etc meant I didn’t keep it up, and I got lost in a sea of distraction – don’t we all?!

Meditation, and Yoga, so far is helping me to focus my mind, to see things more clearly, and helping me to feel balanced.  Making some time for myself to just relax, go inside, breath deeply (even if you don’t do all the body bending) is so rewarding.  I’m starting to realise what I really need to work on personally, and have a way/space to contemplate it.  I now see what all the fuss was about, and how all those Yoga types are so bloomin zen!  Mixed in with all the astrology I’ve been learning about I feel so much more connected to to who I am, and with the planet I live on.  At times it feels overwhelming.

I tell you this because even though I’m open minded, I was ignorant, and I had a healthy amount of scepticism about all these kind of things before I came here (which I suspect you’re experiencing right now).  However, people have come to me with this stuff.  I didn’t go searching any of it out, and it’s been so eye opening just being open to it all, the people I’ve met as a result and the journey it’s taking me on.

I’m also telling you this because the fact you’re reading this means you’re one of my friends and family, which hopefully means you know I’m a “normal” (for the most part anyway).  The fact this change is happening in me means it could happen to you too, if you want/need it.  It doesn’t have to feel all weird or scary.  You never know he good it might do for you too. 

I hesitated to write this blog because of the sheer volume of what I needed/wanted to say, whilst also hoping you wouldn’t judge or scoff too quickly about what’s happening to me – I was the one sitting on the beach in Goa all those months ago saying I thought the people on the beach practicing yoga or meditating at sunset looked a little odd, because I was self-conscious on their behalf and ignorant of the power of good it was doing for them.  Now, I’m the one thinking that’d be fucking beautiful way to watch a sunset! Ommmmmmm 🕉

I’m trying to do more yoga.  I’m learning the value of meditation.  I bought a fucking Tibetan singing bowl yesterday for fucks sake, and I spent hours traipsing around Varkala for just the right oil burner and incense stick holder to make my own Puja – something is happening to me.  I’m making more time for myself, I’m focusing, I’m opening up and looking inside. I’m switching my phone off more and more. And do you know what?  It feels great.  It all seems to make sense.

They said it would happen, and they might just have been right – I might be turning into a yogi/hippy OR I might just becoming more conscious (it’s not a dirty word, pipe down you at the back). Whatever you want to call it, whatever the reason, life feels pretty great and balanced for me right now.  

I’m not exactly planning on heading to an Ashram any time soon, but I am feeling so excited about what’s around the corner – like, as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve. 

Friends Reunited 

So it worked! Best way to get an Indian eTV in Sri Lanka definitely approved, (when you’re applying from within Sri Lanka and you’ve been told the stats are 99% against you) is to get someone with a U.K. IP address to apply on your behalf, and lie (fib/claim innocence) that you haven’t been to any SAARC countries (aka Sri Lanka et al). 

You might also need to remember to book a flight to one of the 12 entry airports that India allows with the eTV, off’ve not getting refused entry at Madurai (failed there), a bit of some lastminute.com panic booking of a new flight for Denso at Colombo airport to fix it, some tremulous au revoirs, leaving your best mate behind with your emergency debit card and 1000 roops, no mobile data access, only sketchy airport wifi, and all fingers and toes crossed that everything will be ok and she won’t get deported… But we got there in the end! I’ll let her fill you in on her side: Caroline Densley blog

After all the kefulffle, we arrived in Varkala this morning about an hour apart, reunited at Shiva Gardens and delivered straight into the heinously hungover bosom of Jack 1%, few… Time for a Kingfisher or two to celebrate – well, it is the King of good times, AND Rich got some splendid news today too, so it’d be terribly rude not to raise a glass to the good fellow! Cheers all! 

  

  
 

Speed dating Sri Lanka 

We needed to leave India, temporarily, to go sort Denso’s visa out. We chose Sri Lanka, and it just felt like another stop on my trip. 

Sri Lanka was lush, beautiful, expensive and full of tourists. On the surface, it’s a great place to have your honeymoon or go on holiday. But that’s what it felt like, going on holiday. I’m not here to spend all my hard earned cash on a long jolly. I haven’t exchanged precious time for money just to go and piss it up the wall and sit on a sun lounger surrounded by tourists. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying myself, I’m having the time of my life; but this is more than just a mini break for me. 

Plenty of people love SL, and that’s fine. I’m sure I will when the time’s right, just not now. I was only there on a perfunctory VISA run, and we barely scratched its surface, barely got past first base. This I know. If we were on a date, I’d be coming off as standoffish – truth be told, I was in a bit of a mood with SL simply because it wasn’t India, and that made me realise just how much I’ve fallen in love with this country, and how much this love affair ain’t over – not by a long chalk. 

Oh India – you’ll always be my love affair. There’s never been a jewel so rare. There’s no one like you anywhere

Pranaji – Oh India

Being in Sri Lanka burst my Indian bubble. It was what SL lacked that made me realise what I love and cherish about India: I missed the people, my friends, the culture, the smiles, the head wobbles, the dirty fingernails, the no rules, the chaos, the traffic, the chai, the language, the rhythm, the food, the music, the budget, the disorganisation, even the squalor and the rough round the edges bits – India has done something to me, and I missed all her assets terribly. 

I never expected to feel such an accute urge to abort abort abort and run back as quickly as I could, but my short time away only renewed my reason and reward for being here. 

 

To understand India you have to see it, hear it, breathe it and feel it. Living through the good, the bad and the ugly is the only way to know where you fit in and where India fits into you.

Around India in 80 trains

So where does India fit into me? I’m not here just to look, gawp and snap away like a tourist, I’m here to see. To scratch the surface, to respect, understand and learn about it; to meet inspiring, interesting and fun people along the way; to allow her magic to impress further upon me, for the kindness of strangers to continue to surprise me again and again, and forever be humbled by Indias implicit welcome. 

Missing India was the best bit about going to Sri Lanka. I’ve come back with a renewed love for this special place, a renewed sense of purpose as to why I’m here, how I fit, and what travel means to me:

Regardless of how my road unrolls in the future, this walk has reminded me what a life of adventure is really about. More than anything else, it is a state of mind. It is an attitude of curiosity, bold enthusiasm, ambition, effort and a rejection of mediocrity. I don’t need to walk across India for that. I can find it anywhere, if I am only willing to chase it. I have the choice.

There Are Other Rivers

So here I am, on a 7hr overnight train from Madurai to Vakala that cost me 230 roops (~£2.30!) to travel 350km, living it up in 3rd class sleeper class once again (the only way to travel), experiencing India solo for the first time, loving it but missing my mate terribly due to an epic eTV admin fail, confident India will deliver us back together again in Kerala, and just so blooming relieved to be home. 

Chai?