Life Signs Vital

#adventure, Australia, Britain, British Isles, Buddhism, fate, free will, Hinduism, human mind, Life, Lifestyle, meditations, Musings, nature, Oddities, philosophy, predestination, Queensland, Reflections, roadtrip, serendipity, Solipsism, Spirituality, thoughts, Travel

From the wandering star followed to Bethlehem by the Magi, to Constantine and his Latin cross in the night skies over Rome’s Milvian Bridge, for as long as any historic text can remember, humans have acted not (as they might like to imagine) independently in matters of life choice, but as a response to phenomena out there in the world. Whether these phenomena involve snapped branches pointing in a particular direction out of the tangled forest, serendipitous meetings with mysterious strangers, or even constellations that speak directly to the individual in us by spelling out our mission in dot writing, natural events have proved unshakeably reliable as SIGNS ripe for following. Other animals follow their hunger and their paternal instinct toward the rains, or the seasons, or the ocean currents. But not us. Oh no, not humanity. We follow abstract signage in the most unlikely of quarters because something in the form and motion of a sign tells us that nature exists to furnish us with little messages put there FYI only.

But in an age of scientific materialism, should we listen to superstitious signs, or let mediums self-appointed with the power to interpret that symbolic value for us. The Gypsy lady? She who lets the tea leaves/coffee granules to settle into a discernible form spelling out (in her own inexplicable way) what’s in store for each of us? She with the singular ability to divine the past, present and future, and thus able to cut a path through our impenetrable present? Hooped earrings and colourful headscarves aside, should we even listen to ourselves when something out of the blue tells us which corner to turn in life? What is it in the nature of choice, the one true act of free will we convince ourselves is ours and ours to fuck up? Are we slaves to signs, subconsciously letting them lead us on into what we think will end either in good life choices or, horror of horrors, outcomes less than desirable? Do other members of our rapidly-proliferating species see signs with quite the obsessive sensing that I seem to? Questions, questions, questions, and only vague signs there to answer them.

I wrote a woefully-neglected book back in 2007 called Signs of Capricorn. Essentially, it was a free-thinking, free-spirited, faintly philosophical travelogue based on a long-awaited return to Australia. I had left the land Down Under in 2003, instantly regretting a choice which i deemed purely my own, without any other agency. At the time, I must have figured if i return to Britain things will be different. I’ll finally, after thirty years of trying and failing, fall in love with the island of my birth, and especially those two peculiarly British contributions to the world: a stubborn class system and a maritime climate that makes the headlines most days for all the wrong reasons. Yes, my family were instrumental in my going back. Unlike the weather, they weren’t changeable and horrid. But, like the English class system, they could be stubborn.

So, in the wake on my grand homecoming in 2003, I realised I had made a major life error, and instantly vowed to overturn this disastrous decision by going back to Sydney the following year. However, as the venerable Lennon said, life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t until 2006 that my pledge was finally realised. I departed a rainy Manchester, arriving after a brief stopover in Dubai, in to a hot Sydney. The city had changed in the intervening three years. That much i could detect within moments. It didn’t feel the same. Well, of course. Why would it? And here is where the book comes into play. I threw my hat up into the air and let the winds of fate carry it aloft. And so it was that I chose to spend a month driving as far and wide as I could in search of signs.

A critical factor in all this unfolding story is that I was misinformed that my Australian Permanent Residency visa would be duly reauthorised merely by going back there on holiday. Cruelly, this was not how how the immigration system worked. Nor was this how things were meant to be. On hearing that I had not amassed sufficient residential time in Australia within a 5-year period (i was a month short), I was faced with a binary choice: by all means, stay indefinitely (thus leaving my rental home, family and beloved dog back in Yorkshire where my family call home) in the Commonwealth of Australia; or fly out of Kingsford-Smith Airport and back to Heathrow, but do so knowing the consequences. That being an annulment of my right to remain in Australia. Visa cancelled. The term Burn Bridges springs to mind (another historical instance of how signs influences the course of a lifespan, in this case of Caesar’s Roman Empire). Mainly because of my dog, I knew I was going back, like it or not. With a month’s adventure ahead, I drove north through Queensland’s Sandstone Belt and out to the Barrier Reef. Along the way, I followed roadsigns down highways where life signs clung on like the spinifex grasses that give the Outback its patchy head of hair.

On returning to Britain, I nursed a quiet devastation. My first encounter – the first of many troubling signs, you might conclude – was with my neighbour, an awful human specimen who spent his disempowered life fulminating in one garden-wall dispute after another. In Old England, where most people are packed like sardines in a tin can because the entitled few own and jealously guard huge swathes of the land, such disputes and tensions are not uncommon. Knowing that I had made not one but two cardinal misjudgements in leaving Australia (an island-continent I had reimagined as being above such petty squabbles between neighbours) not once but twice. I knew the recurrence of this poor choice must signify something. It must be life’s ineluctable way of telling me I had, in fact, made the right choice leaving Sydney. Struggling to understand why, I wrote the book as a therapy, as a means of retracing my steps in order to discover the origins of these signs, and what they could possibly mean for my life, one that seemed to be in disarray.

You can generate the data to fit the theory, but that is not true science. Or you can map the data (as it appeared along the road to the Barrier Reef on that epic trip of self-discovery), building a picture through which a workable theory emerges. First data, then theory, then test of theory. Burning rubber on blacktop, I probed the island-continent to probe the answer to why life had turned out this way. For such a dry landmass, the results were improbably fertile. Hadn’t one of the great Greeks said something to the tune of….’life is played out on an ocean of timespace, whose currents carry us of their choosing unless we find it within ourselves to take the tiller and steer a course, even though the current will still take us, ultimately, where it chooses. In short, we can infer signs in life and so effect small but significant changes in our lives, even if the grander designs, such as fate, love, accident and death are not within our remit to shape as we would see fit to?

(n.b. of course, most of us would choose to be rich, healthy and loved, and never to die).

At journey’s end, I flew back. The immigration officer at Sydney’s airport peered at the visa page of my passport and asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. You realise that if you leave you cannot come back? Helpless, unsure if I had even found a green light on those outback roads, I timidly acknowledged the gravity of what she was saying. Somewhat bemused, she stamped the exit visa and that was that. Another chapter closed. Except it wasn’t. Once back in England, I threw myself into the writing. Stapling together every little back-dated detail on what had been a diverse but disconnected life of travelling, of living in disparate regions of the world following love over career, the unpredictable over the predictable, I tried but could not discern signs that would lead me out of this mess of my own making.

I looked around. I looked inside. I could not make sense of life’s highway code. At the end of the book, life appeared to recover. Things were looking up. England didn’t seem quite so dismal, nor quite so synonymous with personal failure and utter alienation. And then the possibility dawned on me that therapising the experience of making life-changing choices had had the inadvertent upshot of detoxifying – for want of a better word – Australia from my bloodstream of consciousness. The book flopped but thanks to reclusive and intensely introspective nature of remaking memories in narrative form (a year locked away in a room), I steered a course through cold turkey. What emerged was acceptance that i had taken a wrong turn. Moreover, that ages hence I might actually find that leaving Australia when i did was not a misreading of signs at all. Rather, it was a correct reading of the sign to leave when I did and to return three years later to make peace with the war that was raging inside for all that time. It was not unlike the signs of Outback roads themselves – the ones that appear only once, at the beginning of the backroad, and where no signposts will appear again for many, many kilometres. Following a sign laid down years before gave to no signs whatsoever until the next one appeared. The next one would appear near the end of that stretch of bitumen. It stood as proof positive that the next junction led somewhere good, somewhere new.

Signs are everywhere to be followed, and yet nowhere to be seen. We convince ourselves we take decisions independent of influence, particularly from abstractions such as physical objects (stars), chance encounters (accidents that change our lives irrevocably), epiphanies birthed from freak occurrences (a spiritual awakening on the road to Kathmandu), and the likes. But our rational minds are steeped in the mythology of the inexplicable. Knowing that every weighty little decision rests solely on our steepled shoulders, or that each one is not interrelated, represents an unbearable burden on our lives. Decisions are ours to make? Oh yeah? That I followed invisible signs to where I am now (which is no bad place) suggests some things are meant to be. That all things might, just maybe, be more bound together than our Western social constructs would have us believe.

Sri Lankan Children Descend on the Coast

Buddhism, Children, Documentary Photography, Kids, Landscape Photography, Ocean, People, Photography, Portraits, Seaside, Sri Lanka, Street Scenes, Travel Photography, Tropical, Uncategorized

This documentary series was shot on location in SW Sri Lanka, in the old town of Galle. That day, busloads of schoolkids descended en masse from various parts of the country’s interior to go a little wild paddling in the surf.

In these images I wanted above all to capture the joy of being a child on a school outing. When you grow up in the hinterlands, the warm, turquoise ocean is a tantalising prospect.  That you are still wearing your twee school uniform while up to your knees in water is but a minor inconvenience when the day gets going and the ocean beckons.

The Accidental Pilgrim

animals, Buddhism, Burma, dogs, Life, Myanmar, People, Reflections, Shan People, South East Asia, Spiritualism, Spirituality, Travel, Travel Photography, Trekking, Tribes

Bidding farewell to that little mongrel was not easy for any of we pilgrims. Those boy monks, hair all shorn, scalp dappled under the Burmese sun, cradled him like they would a baby, in the folds of those tatty robes of saffron red. Watching the eight of us trundle off, backpacks adjusted, into the cool of a highland morning, the boy monks looked more than equipped for the important job that lay before them. That in itself brought hope rising with another dawn.

For the Buddhist, love for even the smallest of things matters as much as carrying the entire weight of the world on a single fingertip. That much we saw there in their dark eyes, in their serene expression, in the oath of kindness they had taken from such a tender age to do the lion’s share of the caring that the rest of the world had given up on long ago in the pursuit of personal happiness.

A youngling may sleep easy when secure in the love that permeates the air. Now an accident-prone bundle of pup might not be the most astute of characters, but when an accident-prone bundle of adult human who has learned astuteness the hard way sees those four paws splashed across the chest of the apprentice ascetic, you just know that that dog has landed well and truly on his feet.

Yet, the creature’s journey through life did not start out with such providence. Nowhere near. When he crashed into us but a few short hours before, his destiny had appeared no different from so many other benighted souls in fur coats: born in a litter to parents who fucked but not out of enduring love, alive for no other purpose than to survive on slim pickings for a few years and then die alone on the packed earth of a litter-strewn back alley.

The solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short life envisioned in Hobbes’ state of nature looked very much on the cards for this three month-old puppy. His only salvation seemed to be his obliviousness. But life has a funny way of confounding even the most pessimistic among us. For that happy and pitiful creature the winds of fate had turned full sail in the space of one day. We all saw with moistened eyes a feat that should offer a sense of calm to all our weary souls.

We started the morning early in a traditional Shan village deep in farming country. The Shan people of Myanmar, the long-isolated nation that British rulers called Burma, are a proud and self-sufficient lot. They occupy the central-east of this vast country where it abuts northwest Thailand and southwest Laos. Farmers, tribal confederates and a people proud as the chillies growing red on blanketed hillsides, they had been our hosts for the night.

Compared to other fraught margins of the republic, their land is considered safe enough to qualify as classic trekking country. From the former British hill station of Kalaw the walk takes the walker on three days of mostly gently terrain to Inle Lake, Myanmar’s second biggest. Through open countryside, on soil tilled and loamy for maximum crop yield, from that village the trek crossed a road and settlement before ending the second day in a secluded monastery on a wooded hillside.

We pulled in at a house-cum-diner for lunch. There where the plates came thick and fast, a steady parade of fellow trekkers filled up before pressing on. The undoubted star of an otherwise nondescript event was a puppy. Plump, carpeted beige and with a short black snout he could have been half-ursine. Unlike other strays, bony, coats dull from vitamin-deficiency, their natural beauty bred out of them, this one glowed. His cuteness and his daftness captivated all who entered, all except the local family who ran the show. Ignoring the sharp rebukes he received every time he bundled through the doorway and into us, this yogi was not your average bear. All the tourists could see that. We wrestled him on the floor and generally delighted in his brazenness and total lack of the kind of wariness that sets your average stray apart from your average family dog.

Upon leaving, our group assumed that this dog came with the furniture. Any fool could see that an addition like that would bring tourists from doggie-mad countries of the west flocking. But no, one man’s meat is another’s poison. We saw the local kids kick and threaten to maim him. Sadism is as sadism does. If indeed cruelty does come on the coattails of childhood, there was no adult on hand enlightened enough to show them the virtue in compassion.

Perturbed by this turn of events (myself and a lieutenant in Dutch Armed Forces, in particular), we first politely told them no, then beseeched them to treat him well. When that policy failed and still the puppy yelped, then coming back for more because he did not know as yet of man’s dark nature, our voices took on a more menacing and authoritative tone. Here we go again, I thought, another bullshit, untutored corner of the world that misguided Westerners take to be all spiritual and the panacea to all our industrial materialism if only we could be there and breathe it in. Here we go again, I intoned, supercilious arsehole backpackers from Western countries standing on judgement with dark-skinned lesser mortals exactly as the old colonials had.

And then, after no more than a smattering of words exchanged between our wonderful local guide and the family of villagers who would steal the innocence from that bundle of joy, we had ourselves a passenger. No more than five-foot-nothing in her stocking souls, she took that little dog in her arms and walked it right out of that village. Taking turns to carry the bundle, some miles out of town, on the margins of a field where things looked safe enough, that dog was gently lowered onto the banks of a gentle, swirling river where the girls got undressed and the wappy delirium of his reaction was enough to restore the faith of the most doubting of all doubters. In that moment, I could see that the Dutchman was falling hopelessly in love, and it wasn’t with any girl in our entourage. As was I.

Other than a heart-stopping minute or two whereby the pup went AWOL in the bushes, we kept a trained eye on him throughout. Through cultivated land, over grasses concealing a whole weaponry of reptilian delights, we pressed on, him trotting along demented with excitement then in our arms overwhelmed into sleep by it. By nightfall our destination had come upon us: the monastery. Rarer sights there were few, fewer still in the rich realms of my experience.

Checking in with our newfound trek mate, our group settled in for an evening of food, drink and merriment in the longhouse where pilgrims come to exchange life stories. There the bungling little fellow did it again, crashing parties, receiving honorary VIP status quicker than an A-list Bollywood star. In the dimness over drinks the Dutchman and I conspired to wrest the little guy away from the tight grip of a German sitting at the next table.

‘Typical,’ he lamented, ‘first they invade my country, now they have the cheek to take my dog.’

‘It’s not your dog,’ I protested. ‘It’s ours. It belongs to us.’

‘Okay. Seeing that Britain did its bit in the war, you deserve a piece of him, too.’

Emboldened by our joint declaration, we invaded the neighbouring table. The kindly kidnapper in question was none other than the German who had offered me brandy in our guesthouse two nights previous. We Europeans, I mused, we should stick together. The dog might be our common interest, but I demand, like a good contrarian from Albion, nevertheless to take back control from those dastardly Europeans. All the while, the puppy curled up, stretched out, did what puppies do in other parts of the world where they are loved. Ignorance can be bliss when you stand twelve inches above the ground, where the world is for big licks and sniffing, snaffling and capers.

When finally the time came on the following morning to pack up and go, we were left with more than a minor detail. What now? Today is New Year’s Eve, the culmination of a three-day stroll in the back country of Burma, the end of a long year of trails and trials and tribulations that tried the patience of not one but a pantheon of saints. We had snatched the dog from the grip of misery. That very deed cannot, must not be sullied. Anything less than a happy ending would be a sad and treacherous affair. Not to undermine the quiet heroism of our guide – who was a gifted young woman, in every sense the inheritor of a new Myanmar reacquainted with the world at large after decades of self-imposed exile from the world at large (the new Aung San Suu Kyi in the making?) – came up trumps again.

Acceding to her request for its sanctuary, the monks agreed to take our dog and to raise him and raise him well, in a loving and trusting community where he would grow to be wise and great among dogs. Given enough time, given enough chanting of mantras, our puppy may even be born again human.

That day, as we headed out on the trail to watch the monastery become the forest, the forest become the lake and the lake become the closing of something special, we knew among us, without needing to iterate, that the experience with that little dog had made us all in the process a little more human.

Where Pagodas Need No Watering

Buddhism, Burma, Myanmar, Reflections, Shan People, South East Asia, Spiritualism, Travel, Trekking, Uncategorized

There’s a land long long time locked away, behind the keyhole, Mandalay.

Peasants in the fields time slowing ticking, planting their rice making slim pickings.

The landscape stretches on and on, the monks’ flowing robes, the roosters at dawn.

Everything grows every vegetable every fruit, music from the earth, Thieving Magpie, Magic Flute.

Fields of Scotch Bonnet, Indian Red, magic lemon that numbs the mouth, nondescript things that go off in the head.

No room in the cupboard to describe it all: ginger, jujube , jasmine, the creeping sprawl.

Magnolias, primulas, tea leaves & teak, minute into hour, day into week.

Slow goes the river thru the Irrawaddy plain, nothing really matters, what was will be again.