Location: The Andaman Islands, India
It was at a bus stop in Delhi at some godforsaken hour after travelling through the night that we said our goodbyes. Clare was headed for the coolness of Nepal and I, some thousand miles south to the tropical heat of the Andamans. We had laughed our way through six weeks of adventure and it was a sad but beautiful farewell. O how I miss that lovely lass!
All I knew at this time about the Andamans was that they had been turned into a penal colony by the British who imprisoned Indian dissenters and other enemies of the Crown on this remote string of islands.
In the boat I screamed with delight at the flying fish who glided like birds at high speed - perhaps fifty metres - before turning into fish in the waves. I screamed out loud to the sea with a childlike insistence "I wanna see dolphins!" and then they were there in that instant, a whole smiling family of these miraculous beings, splashing along with us and I was more than glad.
My heart was in my mouth when I first stepped off the boat and arrived on Neil Island. White sand, beautiful shells everywhere the eye moved and trees, trees, trees! Coconut, Mango, Papaya, Banana, all laden with fruit, rich, verdant, green, everything green and then Japanese-looking trees every now and then, elegant, gracefully blooming with red, fairy-tale flowers against blue, blue skies and turquoise sea. I had come to a sleepy, innocent little island with one or maybe two roads, dirt roads, that part jungle and farmland dotted with old fashioned haystacks and ploughs drawn by buffalo and women in coloured saris tending crops or picking fruit. Such a picture of serenity, of harmony I had never believed existed in these times..it felt like a dream, like walking through a portal to the distant past when men talked to the trees and the birds and moved without effort between heaven and earth. And the smell of the air! So fertile and potent, every breath is filled with rich, intoxicating plant energy. It's intense. Every breath you take, every moment of every day is filled with an intensity, a fleeting joy you cannot grasp. You want to drink it in and hold it in your heart or bottle it, preserve, photograph it but you can't.
So at first I spent a week or two just drinking it in, gazing at it like it was a pretty picture or a work of art. I swam in the moonlit sea where plankton scattered and glittered like stars and in the day plunged headlong into an aquatic wonderland that teemed with colourful fish of every hue.
But then gradually little by little I started to merge with it, to let go, to listen, to understand until I laughed out loud "You want to live in harmony with nature, Lizzie?" I shrieked in delirium. And I looked down at my jungle ravished body, dirty and swollen from bites from mosquitoes and ants and bugs and torn by scratches from dogs and bruised from the rocks, my hair stiff with salt and my skin parched with sun and I laughed and laughed. There is no harmony in nature! It's a fight. A scrap. Now I knew why man had felt the need after thousands of years out here in the wild to build walls and climb inside to put some thing between him and it, why Mogli was given the gift of fire. It was a beautiful moment. And there were many more to come...
Location: Dharamsala, India
And deeper into the mountains we went where the Tibetans in their alpine shacks wait to go home. Here, nestled in the high Himalayas they fight to keep their culture alive.
One man told us how he'd escaped Chinese oppression by making the perilous journey over the mountains. Along sheer untravelled paths of ice and snow he struggled alone and without a guide until at last after two weeks and many moments of despair and frozen half to death he arrived in this shanty town and to his people. But he never saw his family again.
Hundreds of Tibetan monks with their shaven heads and burgandy robes live here too and by day the streets, aflutter with flags resound with their defiance. At night they shuffle through the dark and narrow streets lighting their way with candles, serenely singing their sad songs to remember the dead. They sing for their dead parents, their brothers, sisters and friends and for their homeland on the plateau, now destroyed by the regime. A sadder sound I never heard.
One glorious ray of light shines hope on these people (who despite their plight are joyful, quick to laugh and smile) His Holiness the Dalia Lama. Unique on Earth he is both a governing politician (albeit in exile) and a living saint, still attached to God. To his people he offers unwavering, selfless leadership, sharing his wisdom, his love and his kindly smile with the World. I met many people who'd met this man -- Indians, Tibetans and Westerners -- and all shivered with emotion when they spoke of him. "His love is so pure" said one man, "you cannot look into his eyes without crying."
Here we delighted in steamed momos and Thangtuk and Thukpa and smiling faces and (oddly) Italian coffee. Clare learned to paint a traditional Tibetan Thanka and her work was fine and beautiful.
Then higher still far above the town there were waterfall days! Days of wandering through Rhodedendrun forests of blood red flowers, jumping from rock to rock in the Springtime sun amid the tweeting of a thousand birds. Days of staring at the strange trees that stood in groups on the slopes and looked like statues of fairies and elves and saddhus that came alive at night to dance with the stars. Up there you can hear the tinkle of bells from the necks of the goats who graze in the shadow of the snowy peaks and watch white bellied eagles wheeling high in the sky and stare at the stars and hear the sad sad song of the monks in the town down below...aaaiiieeee! what a place to be!
Location: Rishikesh, India
And so it goes on. Spiralling inwards, inwards and then back out and then in, as the Universe speaks.
In Rishikesh I have learnt to stay my impatience, to stop the foolish chasing of the rainbow. To refrain from asking 'what next?', 'what next?'.
I have met with some wise old souls in the foothills of this ancient mountan range. I have learnt transcental meditation from an old Vidya down the hill. I have visited a Vedic Astrologer, who's skills have been past down from father to son in a direct line for hundreds, thousands of years, who can see into the past and beyond into the future. He told me many things.
Raucus, rowdy souls we have also met, and so the days have been rolling away in a mirth-filled blur. Here I have enjoyed a gentle rhythm of early rising, meditation, reading, writing, yoga, good food, walking...I have slept beneath stars at the side of Ma Ganga and delivered a Puja boat into her hallowed waters, watching silently as it was carried away, its flame extinguished in the wind.
I have climbed over the wall of the Maharishi's deserted ashram, exploring this silent place now reclaimed by the plants and monkeys and imagined what it must have been like when in '68 it teemed with seekers from across the World.
I have found peace, dear reader, joy and yes, happiness.
And I have written a play.
Thank you India.
O God, YES! I have found the magic! Just remember kids, one day you're puking into a bucket, the next you're sobbing into your hands because you're so full of joy!
The attentive reader will remember that I had come to the conclusion that I just wanted to get away and dig nature. I wanted to escape the role assigned to western tourists in these climbs, to get some peace. So we got togged up for the desert hills and loaded up our scooters with the kit you need for a few days camping under the desert stars. Plenty of food, plenty of water, plenty of blankets.
And we were off on our scooters, leaving the small (already fairly remote) town we're staying in far behind and after a few miles, the villages start to peter out and the roads got steadily rockier and sandier as the hills loom large. Way out there is a Shiva Temple, which we were headed for and we planned to try to buy some wood from the Sadhus who live there and then camp out in the hills beyond. Already a self-concious western traveller, I wondered how we would be received. What would they think of us, rocking up there on our pink scooters? (Yes, to my chagrin we had been given matching pink 'fashion series' lady scooters for this rather intrepid trip.)
We were welcomed by one of the Sadhus and before long we were supping Chai, given to us by the wrinkly old Chai Man (his raison d'etre is making Chai) and tentatively or 'slowly-slowly' as they say out here, we're broaching our intention to camp out in the hills for a few days. Not such a strange request but we got some resistance and some doubtfull looks because we were two women on our own. "Problem" said the Sadhu. (He only spoke the odd word of English but 'problem' seems a popular word out here.) "Animals!" And he gestured towards the hills gravely and attempted to get us to sleep in a straw-strewn room instead. But once he could see we were adamant and not afraid they sold us some fire wood and even carried it up the steep hills, jumping from rock to rock as we, laden too with all our stuff, scrabbled along behind with a herds of goats, up steep, steep hills and deep sandy dunes ensnared with spiky plants, looking for a good camp. Relations were also helped by our having had the good sense to bring a present of Charis for the Sadhus to smoke, together with coconut offerings for the Temple. But we were moved the warm welcome we received from these holy men.
As night fell we made a new home on a large sandy plateau protected by tall, rocky hills on all sides. The Sadhu introduced us to an old Goatherd called Ganesha who skipped off with one of our flasks and brought it back full of warm goats milk he'd got from a nearby goat. A more instantly endearing, sweet-natured man I have never encountered who chattered away in the most beautiful language I have ever heard. It sounded like a song.
They left us in peace and we ran around dancing and shrieking with joy to be in such a beautiful, remote place with the first few stars coming out. And all the horror I had felt for the cities, of being one, cash-dispensing face amongst a homogenous white mass that is destroying as it moves was instantly annihilated by nature and the sweetness of the welcome from the folk in the hills. I was high, high, high!
We lit a large fire and settled ourselves around it for one of those quiet contemplative nights you have under the stars and began to cook. In the natural amphitheatre we were in, you could hear a person's voice, tumbling down the rocks from miles away, and sometimes we froze and listened, is it coming this way? We looked up into the dark hills and wondered who might be living around and whether or not they might find their way to our fire. And indeed it was not long before the Goatherd returned out of the darkness and we invited him (through the medium of pointing and gesturing) to eat with us. He sat at our fire with his white dog that looked like a wolf (he was like an omen) and he chatted away to us in his ethereal, mountain language that was so simple and happy that together with the vastness and remoteness of the hills and the moon and the stars, it connected me all the way back to the very first people and I was glad to my soul. We didn't understand a single word of one another's languages but sometimes you can have a damn good chat all the same. People must have visited new comers in these hills and sat around fires enjoying a good meal and good company for thousands of years. In fact having met Ganesha's son, also a Goatherd, I can well imagine that he comes from a long line of goatherds, the skill passed from father to son for thousands of years. I cannot describe the joy of this meeting.
After we'd eaten Ganesha removed a cloth from his turban and used it as a blanket, which together with a stone pillow and the glow of the fire was enough to lull him to sleep. Seeing this old man sleep, made me wonder what he had thought of Clare and I and all our stuff and the hustle bustle of our food preparation of cups and plates, and cutlery and antibacterial washing liquid. This man had clothes, a dog, a herd of goats and an axe which he slept on.
Later that night the Sadhu also wended his mysterious way up to our far-away home, emerging out of the gloom and woke up the Goatherd and got the party started with his radio. Amusingly for Clare and I a Hindi cover version of Neil Sedarka's 50's hit, 'Oh Carol' began to bleat it's way out of this thing and we sang along in English and laughed at the randomness of this. (Katie and Ellie, I thought of you both!).
A strange night's sleep I had by this fire and I dreamt of snakes and a lion and a tiger and a massive hoard of western tourists who came from a hideous resort (thank god just a dream) that had appeared just over the hill...
At dawn we were awoken by the Chai Man, who'd climbed his way up to relight our fire. He brought biscuits and smokes and was busying himself with making us Chai. What a way to wake!
Pretty much in this way we spent a few days in those hills and when it was time to leave, we didn't want to go.
Location: Pushkar, Rajasthan, India
I'm on the outside, looking in. I've realised that's how it is and that's how it will be. Actually making peace with that seems like the wisest thing to do and I feel happier for it. Therefore the best experience I can hope to get out here is to get out to nature, love the birds, love the trees, love the desert, the mountains. In fact I am still hoping that when I get into the mountains proper I will be able to have some more meaningful conversations with the people who live there - but I'm not counting on it!
You see having white skin out here means you represent, pretty much, one thing and one thing only; money. Only the very few can shake that off, and those few ain't women. In the cities you feel yourself putting on a mask. The mask means you don't show any emotion about the children or the poverty or the staring; it tries to make you inaccessible to the thousands of people calling out, following you, engaging you in hurried conversation as you rush by for selling, selling, selling. Money, money, money. But I have also learnt that if you keep the mask up for too long it is not good. It means you hide your personality, your childishness, your joy, your natural urge to play and laugh with others, you lose yours sense of self. So I will stay out of the cities for now and leave the mask.
O man but I love the trains out here! There, if anywhere everything is levelled. When you spend 30 hours travelling through day and night to get somewhere, everyone is equal. I didn't read or listen to a single tune. Just thinkin my own thougths and looking at the scenery and writing the odd poem as we rattled and rumbled our way along. But don't get imagining tranquility and peace on these trains because tranquility and peace are rarer than hen's teeth out here. Very tiny space, lots and lots of people. People lying on every square inch of ground, seat and bed, bundled together with their belongings and babies. A steady stream of sellers squeeze past you with their wares, each with his own song to form a cacophony of 'Chai-yer, Chai-yer Chai-yer', 'Coffee, Coffee, Coffee!' 'Bed-DING, Bed-DING, Bed-DING!' At night these noises are replaced by the gutteral snores of a hundred odd people. And there on the trains we chatted to Indian men and women and found mutual fascination in the vast gulf between our cultures. If you want to make jaws drop when you're chatting to Indians on the trains, first tell them when asked (you will wait about 5 seconds) that you don't have a husband, then tell them you do not have a boyfriend, then add 'and if I don't want - EVER - to have a husband, I never have to get married my whole life'. Clunk.
I've loved getting out to the jungle in Goa where I was able to climb, play on and meditate under beautiful undisturbed trees with monkeys rushing by and birds of lurid colours flitting and wheeling. And climbing to the foot of a holy Banyan tree. It was the gnarliest and largest Banyon tree in the jungle and has been living for five hundred odd years. A group of hippies and holy men live out at this tree for months on end passing the pipe around. It was a great old peaceful tree.
The last couple of days I have been sick. It happens. But tomorrow! Tomorrow we are getting some scooters and riding out into the desert to camp for a couple of days where the Sadhus live. We will light a fire, cook some food and beneath the stars, find that rarer-than-hens-teeth peace and tranquility. Amen.