Kali Puja in Kolkata

I arrived for my third time in Kolkata at the middle of Diwali and just before the Kali Puja night. In India different gods and goddesses have preference in different regions, for example, Mumbai has a big Ganesh festival while in Bengal and Kolkata Durga and Kali are the goddesses they revere. When the rest of the country is offering to Laksmi on the 3rd night of Diwali, the streets of Kolkata are full of Pandals (big tents that look like castles to house the goddess) with elaborate Kali statues.

The festival of lights sees a huge array of illuminated structures as well as firecrackers and fireworks. It was a bit of a damp squib this year in Kolkata due to a big storm on the main night for fireworks.  I had a great time the previous night though and the tendency for firecrackers everywhere made me feel quite happy to have an excuse to sleep early on the “big night”. Even with the storm Kolkata had the feel of a war zone, some explosions right by my window lit up the dim hotel room and shook the walls.

Northern Temple Tour

I took a tour of the northern temples of Kolkata under my own steam. Starting by walking the half hour to Sealdah station and hoping to catch a local train to the temple of Dakineshwar. I arrived in what I thought was good time for the train, until I saw the queue at the ticket office for the 5 rupee ticket. I went directly to the train to see if I could buy a ticket from the conductor but no this was not possible.  The next one was an hour later so at least I had time to get a ticket. The queues looked awful but I was lucky to find the 2 self-service ticket machines which did not require some kind of smart card. I managed to figure out the confusing interface and was happy with myself that it had not taken too long when I realised it needed exact change. A fellow in the queue was able to change my 10 rupee note, meaning my victory remained intact.

The train took me to Dakineshwar station in the north of Kolkata and I found my way through muddy paths to the temple dedicated to Kali. It is where the saint Ramakrishna spent a long time meditating and has a number of Shiva shrines as well as the main Kali image. I arrived as drumming and darshan was happening as people queued up to offer to Kali. This was a crush but good to see and the rest of the temple had a relaxed and peaceful.

From here I intended to take the ferry across the Hoogly river to the Belur Math complex, a home for monks created by Ramakrishna’s disciple Swami Vivekananda. After searching for some time I eventually found the jetty down another muddy path. The man behind the decidedly locked gate informed me that they had cancelled ferry services due to the cyclone heading our way. This continuation of the previous night’s storm scuppered my plan.

I could get a bus up the road so I waited by a busy intersection. It took a while but eventually my bus arrived and I hopped on, managing to squeeze into a spot right at the front. The rain came heavily as we drove through the Kolkata traffic and when we arrived at the  bus stand it was a torrential downpour.

Belur Math

After sheltering for some minutes I took a dash for it as the rain eased only to have to take cover again under the umbrella of a man selling crisps and other snacks from a cart. Belur Math closes for lunch so I decided to find somewhere to eat and wait for the afternoon opening. I found a small restaurant which looked OK but they had no veg options so I carried on, sheltering for a while in a Kali shrine and then inadvertently taking the wrong road.

Google Maps was my saviour in many ways in Kolkata but on this occasion I took a wrong turning. I tried to follow the route but ended up walking along a thunderous main road.  Then the heavens opened and I got soaked. Taking shelter where I could, I cut through the back streets to get on track. I found myself in an alleyway, amusing the local children with my appearance. The rain was so heavy that these basic residential areas were flooding and at one point I had to wade through the water up to my ankles.  Google was leading me to a restaurant but after seeing the dismal conditions in this part of Kolkata I never expected an enormous shopping mall.  The place was almost entirely deserted but I found a reasonably priced biriyani in the food hall and a Cafe Coffee Day to warm me up.

Belur Math is a beautiful place, so I’m glad that I showed perseverance to get there. I sat by the main Ramakrishna shrine and meditated for half an hour as the rain began again and got chatting to a guy from Assam who was also visiting all the temples. We continued to look around together and then got chatting to one of the monks who looked very sprightly for his age and exuded a peace and tranquility. We decided to stay for the evening service and this was a session of Bhajans, beautiful singing and chanting by the monks, such a meditative experience and well worth the visit alone. The rain started to come again and this time I decided that there was no way I was struggling with public transport to get back. I had downloaded Uber and despite moral objections to the way they do business and so on I bit the bullet and ordered one.  The car arrived, picked me up and dropped me directly at my hotel in central Kolkata for 200 Rupees (or about £2).

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World Yoga Fest, Buddhafield, Hridaya France, Santosa, Living Tantra 1 and Permaculture Design!

How has my summer progressed since my last update? Well, it’s been a busy one and quite honestly one of the most fulfilling of my life… here’s some details

World Yoga Festival

When I heard about the World Yoga Festival being in Reading I was a bit dubious. However, in its first year they had Mooji teaching so this seemed like a good sign. I had some friends who visited last year and said they had a really great time so it was on my list of places to volunteer this summer (partly because I assumed Mooji would be there again if I’m honest – he wasn’t).

Despite this they still had some amazing teachers including the oldest yoga teacher in the world Tao Porchon Lynch, who at 99 has some stories to tell. A member of the French Resistance during WW2 she then moved to Hollywood and taught stars such as Marilyn Monroe what she knew about Yoga. She visited India to learn with BKS Iyengar and at the age of 86 took up ballroom dancing and has won numerous competitions since then. She still cuts a glamorous figure around the field and tottered about everywhere on her high-heels. After 2 hip operations you would think she might cut back on some of the asana practice but it doesn’t stop her. “Anything is possible” is her mantra and it’s something you can really believe when you see her.

Other amazing teachers included:

Zubin Zarthoshtimanesh – an Iyengar teacher with great presence and humour who really opened me up to this style of yoga.

Sheila Whittaker – my gong teacher who led several relaxing gong baths in the main tent

Dr Madan Bali – another 90-something who shared a powerful teaching about breath and refining the subtle body

James Russell – a young teacher who shared some really energising kriyas

There were plenty of others as well who I have missed but I must also mention Ram and Sonali Banerjee who were organising the whole event. I loved Ram joining the stage after the evening music performance to tell us all to go to bed in time for yoga the next morning.

I had a great time with the other volunteers at this festival. We were a small team and easily recognisable by our bright orange t-shirts. The work was simple and although we did some long shifts they were kept interesting by the folks I got to know.

Buddhafield

My second time at this festival was a vastly different experience to my first. In 2013 I was splitting up with Sophie and almost the only person I knew there was her mate “Eligible Dave”. I enjoyed hanging out with him but it felt a little awkward and I wasn’t in a hugely outgoing mode to meet new folks so I ended up feeling quite lonely and isolated for stretches of the event.

This year though, after spending 4 years going to events on the “scene” in the UK it seemed I knew people everywhere I turned. Couple this with the Volunteer team who were also awesome and I spent most of the event hanging out with people. From volunteers at other festivals to tantra workshop people, yoga students and even folk I knew from India.

I did a couple of yoga classes, some dancing, a cuddle workshop and a sound journey which was cut short due to the reggae disco in the dance tent being too loud, and not a lot else over the whole week.

This was partly due to tiredness after some long shifts in the camper van field. I was parking up vans and trying to

make sure there was enough space for everyone while also keeping the fire lanes clear and attempting to accommodate people’s needs. It’s amazing how much space a camper and an awning and a bell tent and maybe my friend who is coming in half an hour and can we go on the end and sometimes you just have to say no. Running around this field was fun, if a little stressful at times so I was happy to just relax when I had free time.

Highlights included a ritual chanting around the Buddha statue that left me in a trance and watching the sunset in a cuddle puddle.

I was bemoaning the lack of Kirtan to a volunteer over dinner and discussing Sivani Mata who we both knew from London. Then I walked off for a chai and decided to take a look in a teepee. Who should be sitting there about to start Kirtan than Sivani herself. “Hello Ian” she welcomed me as I ducked my head under the awning.

 

Hridaya France

About an hour from Lyon Sahajananda and Hridaya have bought a Chateau which is currently being renovated and set to open next spring (2018) as a yoga centre and retreat space.

I was looking for somewhere to volunteer for a longer period this summer as an alternative to festival living and this popped up as the obvious and perfect option. I arrived the night before Sahaja left and was lucky enough to also be there when Swami from Agama paid a visit.

I was there when there were only 4 of us for the weekend and I’ve been back when there were over 30 people working away.

I spent the time there cleaning the newly bought professional kitchen gear, scraping walls of paper, cleaning hallways and toilets, cooking food, putting up wallpaper, helping with content for the new website and leading yoga and meditation sessions. (I’m sure there was more but I forget right now!)

Outside of work time we had fires and singing, dancing, trips to Lyon and the local lake and time to relax in the local nature (and hammock).

There is still plenty to do there (and hopefully the place will be a permaculture paradise in no time – see below) but the spirit is high and I appreciate the constant pointings to stay in truth even in amongst the hard work.

Santosa Yoga Camp

Ah Santosa. This tiny yoga camp is truly a wonderful world away from it all. It’s the only festival where I’ve been for a week without at some stage wishing for home comforts. It’s so relaxed and blissfully community focused. I was there as a karma yogi offering the joyful service of cleaning the compost toilets. After a couple of drop-outs I was actually left to this task almost to myself but it wasn’t half as icky or challenging as it sounds. In fact it added some additional structure to my day and added some purpose to the periods where not a lot was going on.

Santosa is the kind of festival where you can easily do nothing all day but at the same time there is plenty to keep you interested. They offer Yoga Nidra five times a day for up to half an hour and in case you don’t know this involves lying down and being talked into a deep relaxation, something close to a trance state. It’s fair to say they have a relaxed crowd. Other than this all kinds of yoga are on offer as well as meditation, dance, an ecstatic cacao ceremony with special shamanic guests from Brazil, contact improvisation and a lot of Kirtan. Sivani was there again to lead an intense psychedelic session and the Babaji Temple Singers had the roof of the Hanuman temple tent nearly coming off as we danced the whole way through.

Add to this a sauna, outdoor showers overlooking Glastonbury Tor for one of the best views while bathing I can remember, communal coming together for meals (and free chai at the morning meeting) fires, fun and friends made this an absolute highlight for me.

NB the festival was so relaxed I completely forgot to take any photos…

Living Tantra 1

I’ve written a separate piece about Jan Day’s LT1 which should be appearing online soon but suffice to say it was a week of wonderful company, amazing food, challenging exercises and deep blissful states. From dynamic meditation to strong processing exercises I surprised myself with my willingness to go into the practices. The course was a week long but it felt like a month, in a good way. The intensity is full on and towards the end I didn’t feel like I was sleeping because my body was so buzzing with energy. It was a different feeling to an insomnia where thoughts are running through the head but a real physical experience of stuff moving. A powerful reminder of this path which inspired me even more.

Permaculture Design Course

While I was at Hridaya France the first time Christoff Schneider came to visit. He’s a Hridaya teacher but has been a “permie” for a lot longer, spreading the word about sustainability for around fifteen years. He gave an inspiring talk which encouraged me to sign up and learn more about these techniques for living a more ecological lifestyle.

I came straight from LT1 which meant I was in a strange space and the course was full of information and mental work which was a big shift. For the first few days I thought it was all too much and I was struggling with it but at some point I overcame these issues and became inspired again by the potential.

Longeval, the site of Hridaya France, is crying out to be converted to permaculture. There are 11 hectares of land and I designed an area where raised garden beds could be built to provide veggies for the visitors and staff. Using techniques that we learnt for passive irrigation and solar design to make best use of the environment we are given the design principles involve working with nature in a kind of dance.

As a way to judge if a design is able to be self-sufficient we have the five pillars of permaculture as taught by Christoff:

Water – where do we get the supply and how do we store it and use it

Energy – Where do we get our power – solar, wind, water etc

Food – Not just making sure we have enough harvest but also making sure the soil is kept in good shape by composting properly and closing the loop in this way (including compost toilets)

Shelter – Using the best materials for the location to provide comfort with the least amount of energy (eg in our northern European climate straw bale houses have great insulation and cheap!)

Knowledge – Learning which techniques work best in your particular climate zone and also spreading the knowledge and ideas

Using this as a guide and a whole host of techniques including zonal planning you can really begin to make changes and I feel inspired to find some land, build a straw bale house, grow veggies and really start living the Good Life. I just need to learn how to stop plants dying in my care and be more comfortable wielding a spade but I’m sure all this will come…

First of all though I’m leaving for India, a few months of yoga and exploration with hopefully some volunteering at organic farms thrown in for good measure to learn some of the practical skills I was talking about.

It’s going to be a ride, as ever…

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An Update and a new beginning…

This is a new start. I left my flat in the beautiful Kew Gardens, my job after a successful year and finished a relationship which was at times wonderful but often tumultuous and energetically very draining for me.

I decided I needed a change. Some time out. A reset and also the opportunity to give back and offer my service.

So what have I been up to? Well, following on from The Hridaya TTC  I stayed in Mexico for a few months. We had the intention of starting something in the village of Tepoztlan. Things didn’t work out there and I returned to London virtually penniless and looking for a way to become unstuck.

The Hridaya teacher training course was an intensive 3 months of meditation, yoga, theory and community. I wrote about it on their blog here.

Passion, Power and Love

This change has been brewing within me for some time. Some inspiration arose in the Passion, Power and Love workshop I did over new year with Jan Day. The next year holds adventure, learning, sharing and practice.

The above picture is the vision board that I created during the Passion, Power and Love workshop. I created it as the climax of 3 days of deep connecting, both with others and with myself.  There is a lot of gratitude for the learning and dancing on the edge that happened at that time. I returned to work in London with a great deal of positivity and aliveness, even in the depths of winter.

The vision board allows me to look forwards and see great potential. Some of the exercises we did helped me to view memories with a fresh outlook.

 

Gong!

Having been inspired by receiving gong baths at various festivals over the last few years I decided to take a workshop to learn how to play. It was organised by Ali and led by Sheila Whittaker. The two days of training with around 15 gongs in a small space and 16 students created such a powerful energy and vibration. I had been suffering from recurring headaches for several weeks before and I noticed over the weekend the intensity getting stronger. At the end of the weekend we participated in an all-night gong puja. We settled ourselves in for the night and took turns playing the gongs for half an hour each from 9pm through to 7am. By the end of this night my headache was completely gone and didn’t come back even after returning to the office.

Glastonbury Retreat

I was delighted to share the experience of running a yoga retreat at the lovely ShekinAshram in Glastonbury with Ben.  We had eight students who came for two classes of yoga a day. We also had Kirtan with the amazing Tim Chalice, fire puja by the ashram staff and walks to Glastonbury Tor and Chalice Well.

Ben and I also experimented with a sound journey. Leading with the gong and incorporating harmonium, drums, rain stick and various other bits of percussion that were lying about we had a strong hour and a half of relaxation. I was completely gonged out by the end. I don’t know about the students. It’s something I’d like to do more of so will do more gong training work in the next year.

 

The Globe & Sangha

In a brief moment in London some of my Hridaya Sangha were going to Shakespeare’s Globe on the Southbank. I’m so glad I went along to an exuberant performance of Twelfth Night complete with bearded, sparkly, giant drag queens, “We are Family” and a lot of laughs.

Yoga show

I went to the yoga show a couple of times… I found an unfinished post about it so let me take you back there…

“This weekend I visited an exhibition in the beautiful surrounds of Alexandra Palace, perched atop a hill to the north of London and with a stunning vista around the capital.

The Yoga Show is kind of a strange event. The consumerisation of such an ancient art is always going to be slightly jarring. For a practice that is supposed to bring you deep inside to a place of stillness and connection with the universe, being around thousands of people, all pushing their own take on wellbeing, can be overwhelming.

I thoroughly enjoyed it though, from wandering through the stands trying organic chocolate, tasting teas and natural supplements to taking in workshops and chatting with vendors about yoga accessories.

I went partly due to being a member of Yoga Alliance, an organisation that attempts to provide a level of confidence among yogis that the schools they are studying with and the teachers that are spreading the word are of a certain standard. They had a large stall at the yoga show and Emma was helping them out with it during the day.

I went to a couple of their sessions for teachers – Refining Adjusting Skills (Part Three) with Brian Cooper and Master Class: Relax with Tara Stiles. Their classes were away from the main body of the yoga show in a separate room making for a more relaxing environment.

I’m not one for celeb yoga teachers but I had somehow heard of Tara. I wasn’t sure about walking into the hall with the Chemical Brothers booming from the stereo and Tara posing for selfies with the early birds but I was willing to see where she wanted to take us.

The class was towards the end of the day but I must admit I came out feeling thoroughly blissed out. She has obviously worked hard at delivering a sequence that is aligned with the music. (getting more “spiritual” as the class progressed). It was somewhat challenging without being pure gymnastics and we did a nice bit of alternate nostril breathing at the end. I did find she kind of mumbled through the instructions a bit. I felt she was trying to squeeze in more words than is really necessary. This lead to a few occasions where I was taken out of the flow by wondering – what was that? If the effect is all important though I came out on a different level so I take my hat off to her.

Brian has just released a book focusing on the anatomical side of yoga and his approach to alignment clearly comes from a deep understanding of the body and a training in Thai yoga massage.

This class was in much more of a workshop style with Brian and an assistant showing us a posture and a way to adjust before we paired up and tried the same on each other. There were some great ideas in here and although some of the suggestions were perhaps better suited to a “partner” style of class, since I think it would be difficult to go around the whole class applying some of the techniques It was good to learn from someone who clearly has a lot of knowledge and a very precise and focused teaching style, although with a sense of humour.”

 

Resonance Academy

I’ve been inspired by Nassim Haramein and his teachings of sacred geometry for some time and have mentioned it before. I signed up for the Resonance Academy delegate programme and have been studying off and on for the last year or so. I don’t always follow the science.  Quantum physics equations might as well be in Martian to me I’m afraid but it’s been interesting. I’m hoping to get through to Module 4 soon where apparently the juicy stuff resides!

 

Colourfest, sacred sound and volunteering

Colourfest continues to be one of my favourite festivals. I went there last year with some friends which was hugely enjoyable despite some stresses beforehand. This year I volunteered as a steward – the first of several yoga festivals I will be helping at this summer. (The next ones are the World Yoga Festival and Buddhafield) Volunteering was a different way to experience things and very enjoyable to be part of the team. By having a limited amount of time to enjoy what was on offer I actually made more of an effort to do things. Hanging out on the main gate and welcoming people was fun. We were on this gate the first morning before the gates officially opened and some people were really difficult.

“Sorry, we’re not open for another half an hour so you’ll just have to wait here for a few minutes”
“Well, why are there loads of cars and tents already in the field then?”
“… I mean, do you think the festival just appears by magic or what?”

My other interesting shift was on the Saturday night on Gate B. This was the tradesman’s entrance and exit from the festival. I was here alone and other than one person setting up lighting I had to redirect everybody back to the main entrance. It was quite peaceful. Then it got dark and I was lit by just three candles in the forest. Thankfully I had the site security guard coming to see how I was every so often. Ben and Jonathan took pity and joined to keep me company for half an hour as well.

Highlights of the festival itself were yoga classes with Swami Asokananda, one of which I followed with a shamanic journey and then a gong bath for the ultimate in chill. Kirtan with Sivani Mata, Elahn and Radhe and plenty others were also great. There were dance collaborations and some tantra workshops although I pretty much stuck with the sacred sound.

Krishna Das

Speaking of sacred sound I saw the amazing Krishna Das at the Union Chapel and it was one of the most incredible heart opening Kirtans. It is always a joy to do this practice but somehow he led the huge audience into raptures; I was full of bliss.

Yogific

Colourfest wasn’t my first yoga volunteering event this year actually, I helped at a couple of events for Yogific including the Yoga and Vegan food festival in my old stomping ground of Kingston. It was held in the Guildhall which is a lovely setting and was a huge success. There were lessons to be learnt, though. So many people came we ended up with a queue out the door as venue security restricted capacity. It was great to do some yoga, try delicious vegan food and have interesting conversations with people. I’m hoping to help them out later this year in India.

AOL and the Cote D’Azur

I went to a workshop called Awakening of Love which led to musings here… The next opportunity to do this workshop is in Devon from the 22nd to 24th Setember.

Some detail I cut out is here –

Simon Matthews is an unassuming group leader, he remains centred and is able to connect easily. His journey started in 2003 with the Hoffman Process but before this he was sceptical about any sort of therapeutic work. Taking part in the Path of Love in 2011 changed everything and within a year he had trained to lead sessions. His commitment and clear faith in the power of the work, as well as the assistants who hold space so beautifully, create a container that is safe and yet profoundly open.

Awakening of Love is a short introduction to the longer Path of Love workshop which has been running since 1995. Founders Rafia Morgan and Turiya Hanover came together to develop a system from their combined experiences in development and spiritual work.

These teachings stem from the work of controversial Indian sage Osho. He introduced a series of dynamic meditations and an open approach to working with sexual energy which is an influence on most modern teachings of “tantra”.

The workshop also connected me with someone who I went to visit in the South of France for a week. We had a lovely time cooking delicious healthy food from the local produce.  We hiked in the mountains surrounding the Cote D’Azur and swam in the sea.

Mooji

Mooji is still a strong influence, we went to see him in London last summer and I had a lovely hug afterwards. Oh, and we were offered his kettle – truly blessed!

 

Meadows in the Mountains

Meadows in the Mountains was pitched as a hippy adventure in the Bulgarian mountains with a Burning Man vibe. It lived up to that although I wasn’t expecting it to be full of kids from Hackney getting wasted to techno. It was still a lovely experience.

Amazing views, stunning sunrises, and beautiful people made it the most visually arresting festival I’ve ever been to.

I managed to do one class of yoga nidra. It was more like a yoga class with a long relaxation. This was a really nice way to dip into a different energy at the festival. I needed to catch up on sleep as well.

We also spent some time in the delightful tea shop which was run by “goldilocks” who worked tirelessly to keep the place spic and span. Our awesome neighbours in the campsite were tango teachers from Argentina. They always seemed to be in the midst of some family crisis but were such a bastion of calm in the madness.

 


I saw the sun rise over the mountain twice. On Sunday night the mist rolled in and created a fantasy scene of islands of trees in the valley.

We found a drum’n’bass dub party in the yoga tent which went off like a bomb.

We spent a lot of time people watching. In a perfect flow scenes would emerge before us. The pirate ship became our domain for a while, the uneven slopes making the zombie children stagger and the sneezing guy fall over.

We arrived at the right time for food, and this was no mean feat. The soul food curry stall took 3 hours to prep and would be gone in 20 minutes. To arrive at the right second took some synchronicity. Otherwise the festival was fuelled by cheese on toast and Prosecco. People swigged from the bottle in a search for psychedelics which seemed to consume the site. I can’t say we saw much live music but the afro-beat collective were pretty great.

Sofia

On our return to Sofia Sev’s family welcomed us as Herman insisted on taking us out for a beer. We were somewhat reluctant due to tiredness and nursing a 5 day accumulated hangover. Herman’s nighttime city tour turned out to be a highlight, though.

Unbeknownst to us the centre of Sofia has some real sites. The “5 wings and 7 dicks” monument looking like something from the nightmarish vision of a video game. The thousand year old churches. Roman ruins that you can wander amongst, with a can, even in the middle of the night. The Church where Sev’s grandmother got married, with it’s golden domes. The huge statue of a king with piercing golden eyes. We ended up in a bar down a pitch black alley, a knock to be let in and all the lighting by candlelight. The only downside – we forgot to take a camera!

Austin Kleon

I’ve been inspired by the books and newsletter of Austin Kleon who is a Texas-based artist with great ideas about sparking creativity and how art is created through careful appropriation of existing sources. His “Steal Like an Artist” takes the view that all art comes from a combination of influencers and by digging deep into your favourite work you can find the inspiration to make something new and interesting.

 

Politics

So while all this has been going on and my world is turning, the outside is equally messy. Brexit was a moment for me, in turmoil in relationship at the time, where it didn’t seem that the shifting sands of politics could really have an impact and then…

Unprecedented in its wake up call to the progressive left who have been somewhat sleeping over the last 20 years, myself included in that, I hope the upheaval we are seeing will lead to a shift in the way we see our society and how it is constructed.

I voted remain for inclusivity, and the desire to work together with people from all cultures, religions and backgrounds to improve the lot of all of humanity. The petty jingoism and casual racism that seem to have emerged since, and with the Trump effect adding to this normalisation, are not just unacceptable from a moral point of view but also take us backwards when we should be striving forward for evolution.

The recent election showed the number of young people waking up to the recognition that they can influence. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn I hope means that there is a new paradigm emerging in British politics. The Grenfell tower tragedy brings into sharp contrast the differences between the rich and the poor. It cannot be long before the masses realise the lies of the right wing press and stand up against this Tory government. It’s time for an end to an austerity agenda which only benefits those who are already comfortable.

I hope we can rise above self-interest, gain those Bodhisattva ideals (that I’m reading and writing about currently) and shake the magic money tree (which certainly exists if you are an investment banker) to provide for all those in our society.

What Next?

So next I’m volunteering at the World Yoga Festival in Reading and Buddhafield. After these two I’ll be flying down to Lyon to help the renovation efforts at the new Hridaya France centre – Ramana Village

I have been published in a few other places since I last wrote here…

http://www.yogiapproved.com/?s=Ian+Marshall

http://www.hridaya-yoga.com/ready-for-a-meditation-retreat/

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2016/07/how-i-used-my-spiritual-practice-to-break-unhealthy-relationship-patterns/

https://goodmenproject.com/sex-relationships/men-in-tantra-what-they-are-missing-out-on-grmx/

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Spiritual Heart Journey

I originally published this piece about my Spiritual journey on www.spiritualheartjourney.com. I’ve decided to merge these two sites.

I imagine my story is similar to many others embarking into the spiritual scene. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Trying classes, healings, pulling coconut oil, retreats and getting somewhere but then a shift, a change and a move to something else. The two paths that have recurred consistently and with the most effect, though, are Tibetan Buddhism and advaita vedanta.

My journey has been a bubbling under for most of my life. It was only really on visiting India that things started to blossom for me and I was able to see the need for a spiritual path through existence.  Something which I had always kind of known but never really been able to put into practical terms.

Mrs Jones was my teacher in Junior school and where others did PE or country dancing we spent several afternoons practicing yoga with her. I don’t remember a lot about the classes but she was one of my favourite teachers and despite seeming quite old to my 8 year old self, I’ve seen her recently and she seems just as sprightly as she was back then. Perhaps because of this I’ve always had a positive view of yoga despite an experience in Thailand that put me off for some time.

Early Travels

I had a desire to travel, because I felt my life was stagnating. So I went to Australia, inspired by my Australian friends in London. It turned out that it wasn’t so much their Australian-ness that made them fascinating people but the urge in them to travel. I met wonderful people from all over the world, embracing life and trying different ways to spend their days.
It was my time in South East Asia on the way back that I really loved, though. I connected with a thoroughly different culture. Visiting temples, being fascinated by Buddhist Monks and climbing hundreds of steps to Hindu shrines.

IMG_0351

Thai Buddhas

Thai Buddhas

Buddhas

Buddhas

I visited Angkor Wat, without knowing the significance. (Ten years later I watched this documentary which is fascinating.)

I looked around Chinese shrines in Vietnam shrouded in incense smoke as well as the  Cao Đài temple near Saigon which brings together Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Landing with Muslim friends in Malaysia celebrating the end of Ramadan and feasting. I tried meditation for the first time and was absorbed by the beautiful offerings which were a clear backdrop of life in Bali.

Bali Offering

Bali Offering

Hari Raya feasting with the king of Malaysia

Hari Raya feasting with the king of Malaysia (not pictured)

This trip was an eye-opener for me in terms of seeing different ways of living although I knew nothing of the philosophy or practices that underpinned these religions. The amazing nature and animal life in the Borneo rainforest or on Thai beaches. The food had me swooning.

I came back and had a relationship with  an English girl I met in Brisbane. She has a story of her own but I think  living with her changed me a great deal and the breakdown of our relationship started a profound shift in me which is where this journey somehow really started.
She was all about healthy living, organic food, growing vegetables and alternative healing techniques like homeopathy reflexology and shiatsu. I wasn’t on the same self-development page at that point, thinking that this sort of thing was somehow for people who couldn’t face reality. Having said that, I was interested in changing my lifestyle, I tried to meditate, started jogging and practiced yoga once or twice, albeit encouraged by her Yoga with Miss Jayne Middlemiss DVD.

When we split up I wanted to make a change. I slipped into depression for a while but had an epiphany one day, a moment of absolute clarity which encouraged me and pushed me on. Itchy feet and the call to go travelling again hit me but  I couldn’t decide whether to go to South America or India.

I watched this film – I Heart Huckabees. It was only much later that I realised the references to Eastern Philosophy, spirituality, and how it influenced me. It’s a silly film in some ways but is one I’ll always remember as a point of change.

The trip to change it all

My paternal grandfather, Ken, was dying and it was painful to see him in such a bad way. We were quite close and I had deep love and respect for a man who never seemed to find life a chore.
He was utterly single minded in his advice – “go to India”. He was good friends with several Indians in the motor trade over the years while South America seemed like the wild west for him.
With this encouragement India became a very easy choice and I set off, albeit not with particularly spiritual aims. India has a strange effect on the open traveller.

Little Tibet

Before I left  signed up to volunteer in Dharamsala with the Tibetan charity LHA. I would be working with one of their partners, The Tibet Post, to write articles for their English language website.
It was in doing this work that I learnt a lot about the Tibetan people and their struggle. I learnt about Buddhism from Yeshe, the editor and from my fellow correspondent, Jimmy. He was a bundle of energy and the most positive thinking guy you could meet.

Dharamsala Prayer Flags

Dharamsala Prayer Flags

Dharamsala is in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh and is full of Tibetan refugees.

Mcleod Ganj Valley Flags

Mcleod Ganj Valley Flags

It is quite different from other parts of India as monks hang out in their saffron robes, lay Tibetans play carom on the street, momo‘s abound and there are opportunities to do charity work with the community everywhere.
I had a beautiful month meeting people and it was here that I took my first yoga classes. Vijay’s Universal Yoga was in a school down the hill and although I didn’t know what I was doing and his instructions were somehow difficult to understand it really felt like the right place to be.
Before I left the UK I’d also signed up for a 10 day “Introduction to Buddhism” course at the Tushita Meditation centre.

Tushita Gompa

Tushita Gompa

Tushita Stupa

Tushita Stupa

Just prior to the course, the Dalai Lama was visiting his home temple and gave three days of spiritual teachings which I struggled to understand, sitting at the back with a transistor radio and listening to the translation.

With this as a backdrop I nervously entered Tushita in a (literal) hailstorm and dove deep into Buddhist philosophy under the teaching of Ven. Robina Courtin.

Robina is an Australian nun who brought the teachings to us in a beautifully down to earth way. It was jarring for some of the participants who were coming from Western Christian backgrounds. They objected to the explanations of Karma, the hell realms and hungry ghosts.

It was quite an experience for me and being in silence felt like a real relief. I didn’t really even want to participate in the daily group discussions, preferring to let things settle in my mind first rather than be shaken up by dissenting voices.

We learnt about the four noble truths, practiced mindfulness and analytical meditation. There were also versions of some specifically Mahayana style tantra practices.  (Visualisation of the Vajrasattva deity for example.)

Robina was a massive inspiration.  Someone who lived a secular (and wild) life for many years but then quite abruptly decided to throw everything into following Lama Yeshe. She took vows and became a nun within months of meeting him.
The course led to a number of connections and friends as well. This despite not being able to talk to each other during the period! A large number of us stayed a while in Mcleod Ganj and then gradually regrouped in Rishikesh a couple of weeks later.

Yoga and Music

Rishikesh is on the banks of the holy river Ganga, considered the mother by the Hindus, its holy water able to wash away all sins.

Ganga Rishikesh

Ganga Rishikesh

The town is overrun with ashrams and teachers sharing yoga and meditation. There are a number of large temples that serve as pilgrimage sites on the way up to Gangotri – the source of the river.
I was interested to visit the “Beatles Ashram” where the mop tops had stayed practising transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram meditation pods

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram meditation pods

The site is now an overgrown ruin but still has a tangible sense of calm about it.
There was great syncronicity, arriving in town as a free yoga and music festival was about to start. The range of teachers offering classes here helped me to see the diversity of practices that fall under the “yoga” banner. It was also Diwali while I was there. Pilgrims and locals turned the town into a war zone with fireworks and firecrackers.
I carried on travelling with friends from Tushita for the rest of my six month trip. Practicing yoga, having deep philosophical and spiritual conversations and being awestruck by everything that India had to offer.

Ongoing discoveries of India

A couple of us discovered the Chinese Chi Gung exercises of Falun Gong and began a regular practice which was the first time I had really experienced energy moving within my body. I finished each session feeling ready to explode into the day.

We spent some time at the Shivananda ashram in Neyyar Dam, Kerala. I loved the yoga there but was a bit distracted by outside factors to fully integrate into spiritual ashram life.

Carrying on the journey

I visited Nepal and was awed by the mountains and the ancient shrines nestled among the everyday. I had to return to the UK but had the feeling that my journey was not yet complete.

Nepal Street

Nepal Street

I wanted to continue with the one month “November” course teaching the Lam Rim, (or Graduated path to Enlightenment) at Kathmandu’s Kopan monastery. This was the first centre established by Lama Yeshe before he opened Tushita.

Nepal Himalaya from the plane home

Nepal Himalaya from the plane

First finding of Agama

First though, I found myself back in South East Asia, exploring temples and meditation in Bangkok and discovering Agama yoga in Ko Phangan.
I went looking for yoga on the island best known for it’s immense full moon parties but it was another syncronicity that I ended up where I did.
I was offered a bungalow by a guy on the boat across from the mainland on a beach that I knew nothing about. Within a day though I had met several people studying at Agama’s “yoga university” and was intrigued to give it a go. My first day saw us learn the powerful energy sublimation exercise Udiyyanha Bandha – particularly good for moving sexual energy to the higher charkras. If this wasn’t enough to pique my interest the 3 hour lecture from Swami Vivekananda Saraswati that evening on Brahmacharya which was a talk about sexual continence and an introduction explaining how tantric practices could lead to higher states of consciousness and ultimately spiritual enlightenment.
It was here that I read The Power of Now in a hammock, a rental from the Chocolate brownie cafe. I knew at the time that the collected writings here were powerful and would be hugely important but I didn’t realise how far the teachings would take me.

I was encouraged to do a ten day brown rice diet. Taken from George Oshawa and theories of Macrobiotics this simple diet cleans the blood and increases levels of Yang energy in the body. It was tough going, particularly since I began at the same time as I took the first Tantra course with the school.
The theory covered in Tantra 1 was fascinating, although it was a very large group, the majority of whom had just completed their teacher training together, so it felt a little exclusive. I thought there could have been more exercises to work on energy and connection but as it was I finished the course feeling a little dissilusioned. The teachings have stuck with me though and in terms of a view of spirituality it particularly resonated with me by placing sex in a devotional place.
I didn’t stay long after the course.  Feeling the need to move on and let the teachings sink in I went to Bali to see a friend. There I continued to practice the yoga I had learnt and had numerous bodywork therapy sessions.

I continued into Java to be awed by powerful volcanoes (and their effects) and the beautiful temple of Borobodur.

Borobodur

Borobodur

This was powerful stuff before I arrived where I planned to at the outskirts of Kathmandu. I spent some time enjoying the valley, visiting the magnificent Bodinath stupa and volunteering at a small community centre offering some time to school children before they started their day.

Bodhinath Stupa

Bodhinath Stupa

Diving deeper into Buddhism in Nepal

At the start of November I headed up the hill to stay at Kopan and recieve teachings from another Australian, Ven Dhondrup. The one month course had its ups and downs and is worth a post all by itself but I was a little taken aback by the level of dogma that seemed to be part of the teachings. It was a much more overtly “religious” experience than the Tushita equivalent and I guess I found it a bit too much like a recruiting centre at times. Still, we learnt some powerful philosophy and the lectures on emptiness in particular were really beautiful for me.
I left feeling like I needed some respite, though, and the next step, Pokhara, for Christmas and New Year, was full of lightness and fun with fellow students from the course and a mutual friend from London who I connected with on philosophy of life and through a sharp sense of humour.

 

Landing in Tiru

After some time on the beaches of Gokarna I headed off by myself with no clear destination in mind but there had been subtle signs directing me which only became clear when I arrived in Thiruvanamalai.  There was no accommodation and I ended up staying next to the temple in the centre of town rather than in the enclave of travellers and gurus near the Sri Ramanaashram. Despite this, I knew it was the right place to be.

Tiru temple from Arunachala

Tiru temple from Arunachala

I’ve written about it – here – but it was the syncronicity that struck me. I’d read Paul Brunton’s “A Journey in Secret India” without really knowing much about it or understanding that the gurus he talked about were really not so distant.

Sri Ramana was the guru that he connected with the most. The teachings of non-duality and present moment awareness which can be broadly associated with Advaita Vedanta are also very much the philosophy of Eckhart Tolle.  It was a powerful jolt when I realised the connection with The Power of Now from my hammock in Ko Phangan.

Sri Ramana Maharshiq

Sri Ramana Maharshi

I’d also just read a David Frawley book Yoga and the Sacred Fire  which referenced the holy mountain of Arunachala that dominates the town.

Arunachala from Werner's Satsang

Arunachala from Werner’s Satsang

I went to see Mooji and his beautiful, heart based, teachings of non-duality. At first I was put off by the new age trappings and serene looking girls floating around carrying “silence please” signs in the queue. It didn’t take long sitting with him before I was hooked.

Walking up the stunning Arunachala! The mountain said to be an emanation of Lord Shiva! I reached the point where the honks of the town are blocked out! A powerful moment of spiritual and material peace. Walking around the base of the mountain on the full moon with thousands of pilgrims is a different experience altogether. Arriving at the temple in town to a fire ceremony shows the strong devotion.

Tiru Temple ceremony

Tiru Temple ceremony

Melding Rishikesh and Agama

After a trip to the incredibly beautiful Andaman Islands and a journey that took in the place of Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodhgaya, I arrived back into Rishikesh a short while before the Level 1 course at Agama was due to start.

I took several classes with an amazing teacher, Surinder and it was hard to give up. I’d committed to complete the first month of structured teachings, though, and it was well worth it.

In a month the level one course covers around 20 asana and has lectures on every conceivable topic vaguely related to yoga, all addressed with a strong spiritual backdrop.

We learnt cleansing kriyas, meditations, yoga nidra, and yogic philosophy. It is enough to give you pointers for further learning for a lifetime.

Agama level 1 was transformational in many ways. Not least because it inspired me to go back to Ko Phangan for a 10 day Hridaya meditation retreat.

I travelled some between Rishikesh and Ko Phangan, rising to the amazing heights in the Spiti Valley and Leh, Ladakh where I did a short retreat, Theravada style, with a Malaysian Nun.

Spit Valley Prayer Flags

Spit Valley Prayer Flags

Spiti Valley Mountain

Spiti Valley Mountain

I went to Thailand to meet some friends which led to high levels of drama; the perfect thing to resolve in retreat.

I’ve written about that here but it was really like meditating for the first time “properly” and I came out the other side quite different.

I leapt into Agama’s level 2 course in order to really deepen my spiritual practice because I felt strongly called. My group of friends on the beach fostered a creative energy which was joined in partying and lightness.

I entered into an attempt at a conscious Tantric relationship with a girl I met there and we returned home to the UK together with big ideas but little way to make them manifest. It was a journey that we undertook together and made sense when we were travelling but our differences became apparent after returning to the UK. We “consciously uncoupled” not long after moving in together and I learnt much more clearly what my needs are in a relationship and that I shouldn’t compromise on them.

Around this time I met Naz, teaching Hridaya yoga and meditation in the Jamyang Buddhist centre in Kennington, So uth London.  Jamyang is another branch of FPMT, the organisation that Kopan and Tushita are a part of, so this joyful connection between two strands of my spiritual life was another powerful synchronicity.

I started going regularly to Naz’s class despite it being the other side of London for me. She teaches with great heart as well as knowledge and has developed a strong community around her so it was easy to be committed.

Our group went on a “yoga holiday” to Morrocco and had a wonderful time. I’ve also explored the spiritual scene in the UK with her, going to festivals and to see Amma at Alexandra Palace. She has become a dear friend as well as teacher.

Morocco Sunset

Morocco Sunset

She inspired me further to take the Hridaya Teacher Training Course. After I attended a four day retreat led by the teacher Sahajananda that she organised in Stroud, I knew it was the right thing to do.

I discovered Kirtan, or devotional singing, in India and have attended many events dedicated to this spiritual practice back home. It helps to bring me back to my centre very quickly. Events like the Bhakti gatherings in the UK have shown me that there is a beautiful group of people in selfless service to this practice.

Colourfest Kirtan Wallahs

Colourfest Kirtan Wallahs

Harmonium Workshop with Tabla Tom

Harmonium Workshop with Tabla Tom

 

Tantra themes

I was introduced to a couple of Tantra teachers through my writing – Elena Angel, who inspired this piece on Cacao and Jan Day who runs Osho inspired relationship workshops. It was at one of these workshops, Meetings Without Masks, which I was invited to, that I met Sarah and started what is a powerful relationship.

We started out knowing that I would be away for several months but decided to let that be a reason and invitation to dig as deeply into the relationship as possible. We explored Cacao and its effects together and practiced open communication with each other,  discussing all that came up for each of us, good and bad, and  working through those triggers to make things even more juicy and delicious.

Astrology

I haven’t touched on star signs in this piece but I think that in a spiritual philosophy where all are connected, as above, so below and being influenced by the teachings of sacred geometry such as explained by Nassim Harramein the celestial bodies playing a part makes sense for me.

I first learnt about the stars in Brisbane where “Linda Goodman’s Love Signs” led to lots of interesting matches. It was in Rishikesh, though, where I discovered a lot more by taking a workshop on how to read the star chart.

I’m triple water – Sun in Pisces, Scorpio rising and my Moon is in Cancer. In fact, while I’m putting it out there – here is my chart:

astro_2gw_01_ian_marshall.72231.18544

So that is my spiritual journey so far. I’ve come to realise that what I need is to take time for deep internal observation, practice more selfless service and be happy and truthful in relationship. I need to have physical well-being and can achieve that through yoga, diet and connection with nature. Spiritual realisation of interconnectedness with all things and the compassion that emerges is a huge thing to grasp but all the fingers are pointing towards that moon.

I have recently been told that in Jungian psychology I’m entering the 5th 7 year cycle of man which is all about taking stock, determining what is really us and what traits we’ve taken on from family and society. Characterised by creative peaks and peak experiences in terms of spiritual insights and inspiration I guess I’m in exactly the right place for this to emerge!

 

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Filed under India, Thailand

Connecting to the Heart

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
― Kahlil Gibran

I’m in a period of transition and uncertainty at the moment. All the major areas of my life are in flux and changing. My living situation is unclear, my job is only short-term and chaotic and my girlfriend is all the way over in Mexico (although not for long!)
It would be very easy not to feel grounded and to get overwhelmed by all the change and lack of a clear way forward but I naturally like to flow, (my triple water star chart reflects what I have already recognised in myself) and when I allow this all is good.

Legs and heart

Legs and heart – Hermione Armitage

Things were getting a bit much last week though and while I was discussing all of this with Felicity she suggested I pull an Osho Zen Tarot card. I got “Traveling” which you can read here.
To summarise it reminded me of the Lao Tzu quote

“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving”

because it was all about enjoying the journey as a reminder that the important thing is to stay with the present. Your future is not created by endless planning and worrying but is instead manifested as a direct result of what you do right now. We plant seeds and as long as we are aligned and allowing, the right things will emerge for us.

The universe will unfold as it should…

So, how do we know we are aligned, and by that I mean in touch with what is really true for us, what we are passionate about, what makes us feel connected, at peace and happy?

The heart is a wonderful gateway. You can feel all of those things in your heart, you can’t figure it out in the mind because it will always be a reflection. The connection in the heart is always in the present and is where we feel this deep motivation.

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I was at the “Be Love” 11 hour Bhakti Immersion, an event all about the practice of devotion and singing which brings you straight into the heart. It was an amazing reset for me, an opportunity to ground in something far more powerful than the “material” security can offer.

I can have a big house, job and so on but if I’m feeling adrift from this centre then I don’t have peace. All the material stuff is impermanent and when you have this anchor in the deeper space of the heart it seems less important. If you can be happy in any situation then this is surely real freedom.

What is Sufism?
To feel joy in the heart when sorrow appears.

I should mention the fantastic work the Sivani Mata does in arranging these events which bring a large community together in such a beautiful space. We first met while travelling to the fantastic Colourfest, separated in the back of a car by bags stacked so high we couldn’t see each other!

I started teaching yoga on Wednesday at the Jamyang Buddhist centre, taking over from the lovely Naz who is taking the opportunity to head back to Mexico. I’ll be there every week with the class starting at 7.30. I’m charging £10 with the option to pay for a pass at a reduced rate – contact me for details!

I’ll also be running a meditation day with my yoga sister Emma in Bedford on the 8th November, it would be great if you can join with us in diving deep into this heart space and feeling our deep connection.

Feet and Heart - Hermione Armitage

Feet and Heart – Hermione Armitage

Photos courtesy of Hermione Armitage

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Filed under General, India

Indian food – part one

Indian Food

India is rightly famous for its varied and delicious cuisine and in this post I will endeavour to explain a few of the dishes you will most likely come across and suggest a few things that you might want to search for when visiting the subcontinent.

Menu, Indian Food

Menu

Main Courses

Thali

The Thali is ubiquitous throughout India but it varies in quality and substance depending on where you are.

In the south it will most likely be advertised under the name “Meals”.

It is perfect for the indecisive diner like myself who just wants to try a bit of everything.

In the north you will usually be served the Indian food on a metal “Thali plate” with a portion of rice deposited in the largest section and then a dal and one or two curries in the other sections. The dal and rice will get topped up, usually without you having to ask although in a busy place you may need to give them a nudge. There might be a sweet dish – at the Golden Temple in Amritsar where they serve 70,000 people a day in their huge communal and free kitchens they served something akin to rice pudding. You may also get a chapati or papad but do not expect to get more for free!

Ryan and I, ultimate tightwads as we are, meanwhile, wanted to take full advantage of the Sikh hospitality and experience the 24 hour community kitchen which feeds up to 70,000 pilgrims a day.

We approached the large hall to the sound of scores of volunteers washing dishes in rows at the long sinks, the clatter and din rising into a cacophony of cleanliness. Getting nearer and making our way up the steps a volunteer presented us with fork and spoon, the ubiquitous thali tray and a bowl. Following directions to the next hall, either ground floor or upstairs, we filtered in with the groups of pilgrims sitting in long rows on the floor. Then there was a slight pause before more volunteers came around to slop dhal, beans, rice and “rice pudding stuff” into our trays, and drop chapatis into your waiting hands. There isn’t much hanging around, and although you can sometimes get refills, when the room starts to empty, the volunteers tip water on the floor and mop up, signalling it is really time to go.

sam_0398

sam_0377sam_0399

Other than the golden temple I had great thali at Mamas, up in High Bank, Rishikesh, a totally backpacker centered enclave away from the pilgrims and temples by the river. She serves communally and is a total enabler (see Banoffee Pie, under desserts). The thali is simple but her pumpkin curry is one of the best things in India. Down on the way to Laxman Jhula bridge you can stop at one of the stalls and pay 30 rupees for a simple local variety, which, while not as sublime is a fantastic staple.

In the south it will most likely be served either on a round metal plate with smaller dishes inside and then a variety of curries, soups and dals in these dishes, or on a banana leaf. The size of some of these meals is truly amazing and you will often get a Gulab Jamun or dessert included.

My favourite Thali, and equally the most plentiful, was in Mangalore. It was a city that I visited briefly and almost entirely because of its reputation for Indian food and I was not disappointed. The place I went had everything you could ever want in a thali and more besides. I got a small bowl of tomato soup to begin with as a gentle opener. The main serving  had three curries, two dhals, a thin soupy side, raita, naan as well as chapatti, a sweet lassi drink and a gulab jamun. Followed by ice cream. Incredible and at about 90 rupees.

Also worthy of a mention is Chennai’s chain, Saravanna Bhavan. While the menu is slightly baffling, especially given that the items on offer change at different times of the day, you can’t go wrong with the hugely varied Special Meals which are sensational.

Banana leaf, Indian food

Banana leaf

In the south, particularly Kerala, you will find thali served on a banana leaf. Simply wash with a little water and wipe. After finishing fold the top down to the bottom for a genius, environmentally friendly and washing-up free plate. The servers come around with big pots of curry and ladle it on top of the rice which is often on the table to help yourself. Traditionally eaten with the hands, mix it all together like the locals and deliver a taste sensation.

One of the most memorable banana leaf thalis I ate was on the backwaters in Kerala. We were on a houseboat where we consistently had the best food in my time in the south and our hosts took us to a village wedding of the daughter of one of our crew. As foreigners and special guests we had a spot reserved in the large communal dining room; in that part of the hall the fans weren’t working but it seemed churlish to object. We sat sweltering waiting for the food and were like puddles when it arrived but what a delight when it did. We wanted to stay and eat as long as possible but were getting close to passing out, comfort and indulgence were the options but I figured: in for a penny…

Thali is almost always vegetarian, although you might have the option of a side dish of chicken or fish. Goan or Keralan fish thalis are sensational but the variety will come in the vegetables with one main fish dish.

Palak Paneer

This dish is simply Spinach (palak) and a type of Cheese (Paneer) which is firm relatively tasteless and used often in curry dishes in place of meat. Palak Paneer is common, particularly in the north and consists of pureed leaves along with the paneer and spices such as garlic.

Palak Paneer, Indian food

Palak Paneer

Channa Masala

Chickpea Curry from the Punjab region. A dry and moderately spicy dish usually, be aware that like with most Indian dishes you will sometimes find things spiced much more than you have had previously.

Aloo Gobi

Aloo is potato, Gobi is Cauliflower so with that information I’ll let you figure out the ingredients of this tasty curry dish. It comes with a gravy and isn’t usually super-spicy but will probably contain cumin and is usually more dry than soupy. It usually also contains tomato.

Dum Aloo

Potato with thick gravy. This is apparently a Kashmiri dish although I found it in many places, particularly in the North of India. The traditional dish sees the potatoes deep-fried and then slow cooked in the rich sauce.

“Potato, was not on the high priority list of vegetables for the “Kulin Bangalis” in ancient times. Warren Hastings, the Governor general in 1790, received a basket of potatoes as a novelty gift from the Dutch, who takes the credit of introducing potatoes to Bengal. The Story goes that Lord Amherst, had potatoes planted in the “Park of Barrackpore”. Bengalis took to the root vegetable with much enthusiasm. The starchy softness of the potatoes worked well as a perfect contrast to sharp taste of mustard seeds and cumin used in Bengali cooking.” Source: Wikipedia

Paneer Butter Masala. (Paneer makhani)

This is a slightly creamy (buttery?) Cheese curry which comes close to the “English Indian” chicken tikka masala since the masala sauce is similar. It’s available all over, particularly in the North and is most common in this vegetarian version although you can get it with chicken.

Carpe Diem Veg Thali

Served as a thali but this is a veg version of the butter masala curry.

Grilled Fish – magic sauce

Fish in India should probably only be eaten when one is near to the coast or in particularly fancy restaurants (unless its river or lake fish of course). I’ve seen the way Indians transport ice; open to the elements on the back of a dirty truck and this suggests to me that freshness is only guaranteed somewhere you can see the fishermen.

The Andaman Islands, being close to Thailand and Burma and offering crystal clear water have perhaps the freshest and tastiest fish dishes and one place in particular on Havelock Island offered grilled fish in a banana leaf and served with “magic sauce” which was a tangy, tamarindy bit of sorcery for sure.

Tandoori

A tandoor is actually an oven, used to cook Naan bread and other dishes such as Tandoori Chicken, Paneer, lamb etc.

Tandoori, Indian food

Tandoori

These dishes will come dry after being marinated in a spicy red sauce and cooked in the tandoor. On Havelock Island in the Andamans prawn tandoori was particularly delicious.

Navrattan Korma

“Fruity” curry containing nuts.

This is a green curry, but not like the ones you get in Thailand. I first tried it in Jaipur at an amazing restaurant we stumbled across while searching for a random bus agency. We were in Jaipur as extras in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, a british production with Judy Dench and Bill Nighy among others, and the agency who arranged our work had found us lodgings in the skankiest guesthouse you can imagine (making the hotel in the movie look incredible). A group of us decided to do a side trip to Agra and one of the conditions of our deal on the film was that they would pay onward travel costs.It was all on the cheap though and so it was that we ventured to find the agency to pick up our bus tickets with little more than a name and the street. This street had hundreds of travel agencies and ours, of course, was one of the few that didn’t have its name written in English outside. During this search we walked past Bikaner Bhojanlaya and were immediately arrested by the delicious smells coming from the chef who was working away at the front of the shop. Once we picked up our sleeper bus tickets, which, by the way, were not in the bed compartments common to these buses but in seats, underneath the beds, we went back to the restaurant and had a feast.

Navrattan Curry, Indian Food

Navrattan Curry

The Navrattan Korma, and similar Navratan Curry were both fantastic here and never gotten close to whenever I tried it again. Apparently this is a Kashmiri dish and typically of food from that region it contains fruits to add a sweetness to the spice.

Desserts

Gulab Jamun

A rich, but not so sweet, dumpling ball of mostly thickened milk in rose syrup. It is often served at weddings or other special occasions and, like many Indian sweets, is worryingly moreish.

Rice Pudding

Often served hot with fruit, nuts and cinammon. Great for mountain regions where it gets chilly at night!

Rice Pudding, Indian food

Rice Pudding

Jalebi

These deep-fried, bright orange, swirly desserts are neither as sticky, nor, usually, as sweet as they look like they should be. I didn’t find it easy to get a really great one of these little beauties but they look fantastic and could easily brighten up a table of dishes.

Chikki/Barfi

Otherwise known as peanut brittle this was one of my staples for long bus journeys since you could almost always find it near bus stands across the country.  They are sometimes made with ground peanuts and sometimes with whole ones for a more satisfying crunch. Incredibly sweet, incredibly moreish and incredibly satisfying.

There are some desserts (and dishes) which aren’t necessarily Indian in origin but which are found often in India, particularly on the traveller circuit and I wanted to write about a few of them here as well!

Banoffee Pie

Just where does this dessert come from? A combination of banana and toffee done in a million different ways (but again, the best being at Mama’s in High Bank Rishikesh.) Is it Italian (Ban-offi pai!)? American? No one really seemed to know when I was travelling but after a bit of research I find it actually derives from two Englishmen who adapted an American recipe for “coffee toffee pie” in 1971. Anyway, it’s hugely popular among traveller types and quite delicious.

Bhagsu Cake. (Kudle Beach Cake)

Bagsu Cake, Indian food

Bagsu Cake

In Bhagsu, up the hill from Mcleod Ganj in Dharamsala there are a string of German Bakeries competing with each other in sales of a backpacker treat that is well worth the walk. A little like Millionaire Shortbread but way better; Bhagsu Cake has a biscuit base topped with a layer of caramel and a crispy chocolate topping.

In Karnataka, the up and coming young beach pretender, Gokarna, with its ancient temples and string of slowly developing beaches has a strange echo. Many of the people running businesses in the North in the warm summer months will move down here in the winter when the season is in full swing at the beach. The veritable Vijay for example who teaches his Universal yoga in both Arambol, Goa and Mcleod Ganj. In Gokarna this makes for an interesting conversation with the restaurant owner as he tries to explain what “Kudle Beach Cake” is exactly. He gives up pretty soon with the hopeful “Bhagsu Cake?” and while, maybe, it doesn’t keep quite as well in the sweltering south, it is essentially the same cake.

 

Hello to the Queen/King

This certainly is a royal dessert although I still am none the wiser which King or Queen it refers to… I’m pretty sure it isn’t Lizzie and although many people think this originates from England, it doesn’t. It seems most popular among Israeli travellers, although that could be the munchies kicking in and they certainly don’t claim ownership of the concept.

It consists of a bowl filled with biscuit crumbs, topped with banana, usually lightly fried, and then oodles of ice cream and chocolate sauce. It may have raisins, cashews, pomegranate seeds and the like on the top as well but these aren’t core ingredients. You will get as many different variations on Hello to the Queen as there are restaurants but when you find a good one (like in the Oasis cafe Rishikesh) you will most likely go back again and again.

Oasis cafe Rishikesh, Indian food

Oasis cafe Rishikesh

Hello to the King is the same as Hello to the Queen but topped with Bhagsu Cake for the full OMG experience.

Royal Falooda

Royal Falooda, Port Blair, Andamans

Royal Falooda, Port Blair, Andamans

I don’t know which came first, the Knickerbocker Glory or this, a massive glass full of naughty goodness. The Falooda is a long glass with fruit and maybe a bit of ice cream and the Royal Falooda takes it up several notches by adding cream, sprinkles, loads more ice cream and loads more fruit. The Cool Bars in Port Blair, Andaman islands, serve these up to thirsty and steaming locals and visitors alike, an indulgent alternative to a coffee break.

Accompaniments

Lassi

The yoghurt drink. Perfect when your curry is a little more spicy than anticipated to calm down the palate and good for digestion as well. Various fruit varieties are on offer with banana being the most common but in more local places you will probably just get the option of Sweet or Salty. The best sweet lassis are flavoured with just a hint of cardamom for a deliciously subtle taste. At first the salty lassi is a difficult thing to appreciate but when you have been suffering from a dose of dodgy Indian belly for several days it has a wonderful calmative effect.

The Saffron Lassi, available most famously in Jodhpur where they claim to have the best in the country, is another variety which gives a subtle flavour to the drink.

Lassi, Indian Food

Lassi

Often served in Kulhars or clay mugs you destroy after use making them hygienic and fun!

Papad

You may know them as Poppadoms and will possibly order way too many at your local Indian restaurant as a starter to eat with a variety of dips. In India, however they are more often served as part of a Thali or as a snack in their own right on street stalls. You will often see street vendors frying them up enticingly and Masala Papad are considerably more spicy than the plain variety we most commonly find in the west.

Chapatti

 

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The standard bread that you will find everywhere around India. Cooked in a dry frying pan or over coals and without yeast it is flat and often delicious. Dip it in your curry and dal, enjoy and be prepared to order another one, or two. Order the butter chapatti if you want bread smeared in melted butter to add to the oily ghee in your curry.

Butter Chapatti, Indian food

Butter Chapatti

Samosa

Triangular pastry most commonly stuffed with potato, peas, cumin and other spices. Delicious fresh, hot and crispy but not bad cold and soft as well. Meat varieties also available but you might want to be careful about the source and freshness.

Samosa Chat

Dal

There are many different types of dal, some spicy, some plain, some soupy and some dry. Wherever you go in India though, you will find this staple of lentils cooked until soft is ubiquitous, healthy and filling. Eat as part of a thali or as a side with other dishes, or simply with rice (in more remote places).

Chitkul hospitality, Indian food

Chitkul hospitality

In Chitkul, at the end of the Sangla valley of Himachal Pradesh, we arrived off-season after a very long, uncomfortable and scary bus journey down some beautiful valleys ravaged by dam projects and military bases, to a town that was essentially shut. This place is at the end of the road, and through the mountains you can get to the Tibetan border. In the summer it is supposed to bloom with flowers and be a valley of plenty, but when we arrived it was one of the most desolate, inhospitable and unwelcoming places I have ever been to. We sat on the balcony of our guesthouse and watched two men attempting to plough a small patch of mud that looked as infertile as the moon, waiting for our dinner. We weren’t given an option on what we could have, and what we got was some boiled rice and the most bland slop of lentils cooked with seemingly no salt and absolutely no flavour. After several days eating dal like this you really can tell the subtle differences between what seems exactly the same dish, and this was by far the worst I ever had.

Jeera Rice

Jeera is Cumin so this is rice flavoured with cumin. Sometimes it is spelt Zeera or maybe even other variations but don’t let that fool you. It goes well with most dishes so if you want your rice to have an extra burst of flavour this is a good option.

Raita

Yoghurt and cucumber or other fruit to take the edge off that blisteringly hot curry

Puri

Puffed up bready goodness

Puri, Indian food

Puri

Tibetan food

While there are regional varieties of Indian food which are quite extreme in their difference, I’m creating a separate category for Tibetan food since it is so different and has its origin in a different country and culture.

Momos

After having tried Tibetan food on a few occasions I decided that doing a cooking course would be a good way to spend my morning. Lhamo’s Kitchen offers 2 hour classes in different types of Tibetan cuisine, pretty much in his front room, and the first one we attended was to see how to make the Momo dumplings that I may have gone on about. We discovered that “Mo” in Tibetan means “tasty” so the dumplings are literally “Tasty Tasty.”

We made three different types of Momo which were: Vegetable, Cheese & Spinach and a sweet with a sugar and sesame seed filling.

Tibetan Bread

Tingmo

A steamed Tibetan bread usually eaten with soup or butter tea. Pretty tasteless and has a slightly odd spongy texture for most western tastes but does go well in a good Thukpa.

Butter Tea

Wow. Usually tried because someone gives you a cup, I’d be surprised if you order it after trying once. It is tea, made from butter, and pretty much as unpleasant as that sounds… Sometimes it is served as “tea” without too much indication so when in Tibetan areas I would suggest keeping a close eye and if the tea looks a bit pale then sip with caution..

Thukpa

Tibetan Soup, normally clear but with tomato and thin noodles

Thantuk


Tibetan soup, normally thicker broth than Thukpa and with big flat noodles

Breakfasts

Porridge

Oat or Wheat porridge is available throughout India as a breakfast dish, usually served hot with banana, honey or other fruits. At the Tushita Meditation centre in Dharamsala they serve amazing big vats of porridge most mornings to Dharma students in silence, appreciative of something hearty in the chill mornings of the lower Himalaya. In these regions, where Tibetan refugees live you will also find Tsampa porridge made from the traditional barley flour that farmers would live on for days while travelling in the plains.

Parantha

Another type of bread, this time stuffed. Aloo (potato) parantha is one of the more common and is usually served for breakfast with a spicy pickle and curd.

Parantha, Spiti valleyParantha, Spiti valley, Indian food

Parantha, Spiti valley

Masala Chai

Chai! Indian food

Chai!

“Chai, Chai, coffee, Chai, Chai” is a call anyone who has travelled on an Indian train will be more than familiar with from the Chai Wallahs (or tea salesmen) who ply their trade up and down the carriages. Chai is ubiquitous wherever you go in India and not just restricted to transport but there is something strangely refreshing about the thimble sized cups of train-chai.

Don’t be confused by naming conventions, and don’t expect the same name wherever you go. It is advertised as Chai, Masala Chai, Chai Masala, tea, milk tea, masala tea etc and these may all appear on the same menu and be slight variants (or exactly the same). Tea may come with spices or may come plain – if you want the mix of cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, cloves etc (which will vary from place to place) then the key word is Masala. Chai can mean either with or without.

A key task of any visitor to India, as far as I’m concerned, should involve thoroughly investigating the chai available wherever you travel. I have two favourite spots, the first is the Office in Rishikesh and the second opposite Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Tiruvanimallai.

Service at either is haphazard, slow and maybe slightly surly in Tiru but at both it is worth it to receive the metal mug or beaker of hot, delicious tea. In the Office, if you are lucky and there is more than one guy working then the little old dude will sit over the deeply stained pot steeping tea leaves and spices in hot water and milk. The finished article comes in a large metal mug and is too hot to drink, although I guarantee that you will burn your tongue a few times, so impatient  for the beautiful brew. It’s something to do with the cardamom and ginger that makes it so irresistible, and despite being several times bigger than your average chai, one is never enough. Perfect to sit around one of the tables and talk about yoga or listen to people play guitar while cross-legged on the balcony overlooking the Ganga (and beating off flies).

In Tiru, the ginger is prominent in the flavours and the metal beakers they serve it in are not the most practical items – you can expect to burn your fingers as well as your tongue here, but it is maybe even better than the Office variety. Here you sit in the shade, if you’re lucky, or in the baking sun where you can discuss non-duality, meditation and Shiva in the wake of Aurunachala, one of the holiest hills, said to be an emanation of the Lord of Destruction himself.

There are countless other places to get chai of course – I’d love to hear your favourites!

Chai stall, Rishikesh, Indian food

Chai stall, Rishikesh

Chai Stall, Indian Food

Chai Stall

Omelette (man in Jodhpur)

I’m not sure India lays claim to the omelette but for a dish cooked around the world in a million different ways in India there are subtle local twists. By Jodhpur gate there is a man who goes through 10,000 eggs a week cooking fluffy Cheese and Tomato omelets or spicy masala varieties that will make your mouth water. He is very proud of his stall and has a guest book for you to sign to tell your tale of the best omelette in town. His success has had a common effect in India though and now he has to display a large sign above his stall declaiming that he and he alone is the original omelette man and the several copycat stalls that have now opened either side of him are merely imposters, serving under par egg dishes that presumably do a terrible dishonour to the very concept of an omelette. Great marketing strategy anyway, I’m not sure if he has Twitter yet but  it’s a matter of time…

Omlette man, Indian food

Omlette man

His omelets are great anyway and despite the fact that in certain holy places it is not allowed to eat eggs along with meat it does make you wonder that in such a spiritually awakened country the Om-lette is certainly a staple.

Museli Fruit curd

Many will claim to have found the best in India, but I give you the Office in Rishikesh for its huge bowl full of a variety of fruit, minimal muesli and oodles of yoghurt and honey topped with pomegranate seeds.

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Dosa

A savoury pancake, crispy and often as long as a cricket bat (nearly). This is a southern speciality that is found elsewhere around India BECAUSE IT IS SO GOOD!

Masala Dosa, Indian food

Masala Dosa

Coming up in part two:

Aloo matar , bindi masala  biryani, chaat, chana masala, kheer, kofta, pani puri, parantha, rajma, Appam, idiappam, idli, parotta, pongal, sambar, uttapam, vada, laddu and lots lots more!

 

Some non-Indian, Indian dishes too –

Mad Angles – and other Crisps and snacks

Biscuits!

Shakshuka, Shacklab and others!

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Andaman Islands

Guide to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are an archipelago of over three hundred small crops of land, governed by India, in the Andaman sea although they are closer to Burma and Thailand.

There are some uninhabited islands and others which are off-limits to tourists due to the protection of the indigenous population. The Nicobarese are a tribal people and the government is now making every effort  to stop modern influences disrupting their traditional way of life as has happened with other groups on some of the main islands. There was controversy a couple of years ago as video footage emerged of “human safaris” being carried out where tourists could go and view local dances and rituals, observing from a jeep as if these people were wildlife. These were the islands on old maps marked “here be monsters” due to the wild nature of their inhabitants.

The contrast between pristine white sand beaches and dense rain-forest is breathtaking at times, and the Andamans have truly some of the most amazing and beautiful beaches in the world. Clear turquoise water framed by bush as far as the eye can see, on Havelock Beach 7 I could go down at 8AM and have the entire Radha Nagar stretch entirely to my self.

Radha Nagar beach, Havelock Island, Andamans

Radha Nagar beach, Havelock Island, Andamans

There is cultural diversity you can explore in the Andamans but given the history of the place and how the British and other rulers treated the indigenous population it is perhaps best to stick to the amazing beaches and nature. The Scuba diving and snorkelling in the Andamans is  some of the best in the world with great visibility and a huge array of fish, rays and other sea creatures. Dive sites include shipwrecks gorges and the like to explore.

Flights to the Andamans are from Calcutta or Chennai and they are sometimes expensive, check for deals! There is also a boat that goes from Chennai or Calcutta, it takes 3 or 4 days and some will say is the only “real” way to get to the islands, man.

 

The Capital: Port Blair

Port Blair is a hub, where flights land and boats dock and although it’s a pleasant enough town in its own right generally it isn’t a place you would want to stay for more than a night or two. It’s small enough that you can stay around the main Bazaar in some cheapish hotels and explore the whole town either on foot or by auto rickshaw. We stayed at Azad lodge where the owner was helpful and you can choose between super cheap and grotty or pay a little bit more for a nice room.

Things to do in the Andaman capital:

– Visit the old Cellular Jail to learn about the history of the islands

– Treat yourself to a massive Royal Falooda at one of the Cool Bars in the Main Bazaar

 

Outside of Port Blair there are several other islands which are on the backpacker trail…

 

1. Havelock Island

Popular for being one of the closest Islands to Port Blair, excellent for diving and with the closest the Andaman Islands have to a party scene. Hang out amongst the scattered guesthouses with large groups of Israelis on Beach 5 or escape to Radha Nagar, Beach 7 with fewer places to stay and a much more relaxed vibe (and a far better beach).

  1. Little Andaman.

More off the beaten track as it takes about 10 hours by ferry from Port Blair and isn’t as developed or hospitable in many ways than Havelock. You kind of need a motorbike to get around and the beaches are notorious for sandflies (some bites can get really infected and cause swelling so be careful). It’s worth it though for the surfing, amazing jungle, waterfalls and end of the world feeling – bring a hammock.

                 3. Neil Island

The island next to Havelock is less developed and so more relaxed. It’s more accessible than Little Andaman so if you want the easy middle ground between the two then this is a good option.

TOP 10 BEST Experiences / Adventures in the Country 

1. Scuba Diving

2. Becoming a beach bum at Radha Nagar Lagoon

3. Surfing Little Andaman

4. Riding a motorbike through the jungle to the crocodile infested waterfall on Little Andaman

5. Exploring villages down little roads

6. The freshest seafood grilled to perfection with magic sauce at Swapan’s on Havelock, the best little local place you will find…

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7. Snorkeling

8. Did I mention the beach?

9. Going up to the north to visit jungle or the beautiful Smith & Ross islands

10. Bonfires, beer and brilliant simplicity


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10 mind expanding places to visit.

I’ve traveled quite a bit in my time and certain places have lived long in my memory. I’ve listed 10 here that I think are particularly mind expanding for a variety of reasons…

Travel is a mind-broadening, mouth-watering eye-opening and loin-moistening experience which if you’re not careful will grab you as a bug and not let go until you are looking at finding ways to make it into a lifestyle. For me it is best to treat travel  as a learning experience whether that be from taking courses and classes or just through interactions with locals and travelers from countries you may never have thought of visiting. Everyone is a teacher and every day can bring new challenges and experiences and travel allows you to open up to these if you let it. Gazing out at the sunset over a beautiful ocean or up at the multitude of stars on a clear night in the mountains the everyday drifts from your consciousness a little and you begin to realise the fundamental value of a life. Doing a long trip before starting a life of work can give you a better perspective I think and stop you getting stuck in a treadmill of unhappiness because you have the knowledge of something satisfying that isn’t reliant upon or judged by your performance in an office.
Embrace the difference, be amused by the difficulty, every long bus journey is a story and every arrival a new beginning. There will be hard times on a long trip, where you miss home and the simplicity of a life that you know but the benefit gained and the satisfaction you feel when you navigate those problems is worth the hardship.
I have traveled extensively in South East Asia, Europe, Australia and India.

Real de Catorce

In the North of Mexico this former silver mining outpost is only accessible through a 2.5km winding mine-shaft tunnel which necessitates moving to a smaller bus on arrival. Since the seam ran dry Real has become a ghost town with abandoned buildings in the valleys surrounding the town.

Taking a horse around the beautiful hillsides is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, discovering ruins of mansions and mine buildings. You will also find sacred Huichol sites where ceremonies sometimes take place. These hills are alive with Peyote, the cactus that shamans use to give a healing dose of mescaline and the Huichol tribe come here at least once a year to hold large ceremonies.

 

Dharamsala – Triund

From the home of the Dalai Lama in Mcleod Ganj it is around a 4-5 hour trek up to the mountain ridge of Triund, passing screaming monkeys peering out of steaming garbage bins and accumulating stray dogs along the way as you cross beautiful valleys and tree-lined hills.

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If the clouds creep in the majestic view back across the Himalayan foothill valleys will disappear into a white nothingness but once you reach the chai stalls at Triund itself you will be above the clouds to see a majestic mountain appear in front of you from nothing. At sunrise and sunset the views are particularly stunning with any lingering cloud cover dissipating and the mountains bathed in yellow-orange sunlight.

Anapurna Base Camp

While the 26 day trek around the Annapurna circuit has started to become less popular due to the building of roads near part of the previously isolated route, the “ABC” trek is still out there and as inaccessible as things come.

It takes around 7 days including a loop at the bottom to reach the base camp at over 4000 metres with at least two of these days being almost entirely uphill. You will pass through small villages, delightful valleys and gorges, and finally across a snow-covered plateau. There are guesthouses en-route in the various villages, although for the last 3 days you will be staying in lodges that are solely there for the benefit of trekkers since this area is not inhabitable year-round. If you go in March or April, officially the “second season” the hills will be alive with huge rhododendron bushes in red, blue and yellow and the final valley will be a spectacular grass-lined path rather than a snow-covered tundra.

Pinnacles Borneo

Deep in the jungles of Borneo, past nomadic tribes with blow-pipes and a history of cannibalism you can journey out by river-boat and on foot to the base of the Pinnacles, a set of jagged rocks which poke up out of the side of the mountain.

The climb to the top is up a slippery slope of sharp rocks and the last third involves climbing up rope ladders, shimmying across planks and hauling up knotted cable.

Coming down is even more fun, especially if it has been raining, as the downward motion enhances the slipperiness and falling onto those jagged rocks a real possibility. It may not be such a bad move to come down on your bum.

Spiti Valley

To reach this place you have to endure hours of treacherous roads, driving in local Indian buses with drivers who think that honking the horn enables them to safely hurtle around blind corners with drops of thousands of metres awaiting a wrong turn. The buses cheerfully have “Oh God Save Me” handpainted on the front and as you swerve around the 30th bend of the day with crumbling rocks skittling down into the canyon below you realise that maybe grace does have something to do with your survival on this trip.

The views from the bus, if you can stomach to look out of the window, are spectacular though and on arrival in one of the villages along the way, after kissing the ground and praising Shiva, Buddha, Christ and Allah for your survival, you soon realise why some hardy souls choose to live up here.

The “ultra blue” skies are one thing, a shade that reflects the high altitude of the region which is usually around 4000m, but add to that an arid desert landscape with little vegetation and paths hugging the valley which swoops to the trickling rivers below and then the snow peaked Himalaya which surround you at every turn and this is an awesome landscape to trek in.

Staying up here is basic, homestays with the villagers who are welcoming but understandably only able to provide the simplest of food. They burn cow shit to keep warm in the winter and have piles of dung stacked in storage rooms all shaped into neat patties.

Buddhism is rife up here with monasteries everywhere, reflecting the closeness to the border with Tibet, and you can see monks practicing and ancient caves where yogis of the past meditated and gained enlightenment.

We walked from Dhankar to Kaza over five days. The stars at night were the clearest I have seen and sitting on the rooftop of a white-painted house in the middle of this nowhere was an other-worldly experience indeed.

Arunachala – Tiruvanimallai

Tamil Nadu in the South of India is a strongly religious state.  Old and impressive Hindu temples dominate everywhere you go with awesome facades, intense ceremonies and usually a lot of fire.

Tiru is in the shadow of the mountain Arunachala which is said to be an emanation of Lord Shiva, one of the main trinity in the Hindu pantheon. It is a beautiful mountain and walking up amongst its verdant hills and away from the honking and mayhem of the centre of the city is a most peaceful experience.

It was here that Sri Ramana Maharshi, a famous Indian saint, sat in a cave for many years and meditated in silence. At the temple in town, where he also lived for some time, his experiences are recorded;  and on the outskirts a small enclave has grown around his ashram, set up by his followers.

In this part of town things are a bit more relaxed and you can spend your days visiting the western gurus who visit to speak of their take on advaita vedanta or the non-dualistic teachings of existence that Ramana originally expressed.

Every month at full moon, thousands of pilgrims walk the 12km around the base of the mountain barefoot, taking time out along the way to give offerings to the hundreds of Shiva Lingam shrines that ring the base, and ending up at the temple for further blessings.

Andaman Islands

Part of India but closer to Burma and Thailand, this set of Islands (forming a large archipelago with the neighbouring but inaccessible Nicobar islands) are as close to the Robinson Crusoe, perfect beach getaway as you can imagine.

Their history is not so great with the British causing great hardship to the indigenous population meaning that many of the tribes have died or have lost their traditional way of life (and why large portions of the islands are now off-limits to tourists).

The main island houses a huge jail which was used for prisoners who were treated extremely harshly and given unfair punishments when they were unable to keep up with the unreasonable targets set in the hard labour work they were sentenced to undertake.

 

Getting away from the history though, you can find almost untouched beaches that are out of a dream. Radha Nagar beach on Havelock Island for example is known for its beautiful sunsets but there are only 2 small guesthouses serving the beach. There are a couple of more upmarket resorts but they are hidden away in the jungle such that when you walk down past the handful of chai shops offering simple thalis you enter out onto the beach and find it stretching as far as you can see in either direction with barely a soul bothering its pristine sand.

The sea is a clear turquoise and the white sand is fine to the touch, jungle rings the shoreline and other than a couple of wooden umbrellas on immediately entering there is nothing man-made in sight.

Walk along to the right and you will find a lagoon with still green water for when you tire of playing in the waves which are frequent but not too strong.

I used to come down at 8 in the morning and there would never be anyone there, I would swim with the dogs who would come to meet me and be amazed that I was so lucky.

4000 islands Laos

Deep in the south of Laos, not far from the border with Cambodia, is this set of islands in the mighty Mekong river. It is home to Irrawaddy dolphins which you can go and see, but for me, it was more about being the most peaceful and beautiful spot to hang out in a hammock.

 

Mount Bromo, Java

The volcanoes in Java are very much active with Gunung Merapi regularly erupting and causing significant damage to the surrounding region. Bromo is a little less dangerous, although a potential eruption here could be devastating.

You walk, or ride a horse, across large flat plateau with nothing except an old temple in between the small town and the crater.

After a climb up the side of the mountain you reach a hole in the earth with smoke gently rising from the innards which are not quite visible . The slope leading down to the pit is reminiscent of the gaping maw that Han Solo narrowly avoids in Return of the Jedi and the security barrier that existed here at one point has now eroded into barely nothing.

As visitors toss their offerings down into the mountain there is often a moment of disquiet as you fear that some over-exuberant fellow may overbalance and follow on down into the middle of the crevasse.

Black Rock City

The home of the Burning Man festival in Nevada. For a month or so the participants transform this site from the most inhospitable desert, with nothing growing on its large flat basin floor and super fine dust covering everything, to something resembling a city, as it might be on Mars.

Taking over the environment by building camps the participants create the vast majority of the city themselves with the organisers only being responsible for some of the main structures.

With massive dance parties all over the landscape, particularly at night when people in EL wire lights fill the entire bowl, art cars parade around pumping out beats and providing their own light show and art exhibits glint and sparkle or flash and titilate depending on their wont.

Burning Man photos by Severin Taranko

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11 top Instagram Food Photography Tips

I was sent the following 11 top Instagram Food Photography Tips which I could probably use from the folks at Bookatable.

Tips for snapping food on Instagram
Read the full article – “Tips for snapping food on Instagram”
is a graphic produced by Bookatable.

My photography skills leave something to be desired so the potential improvement offered here is fabulous.

I know a couple of food stylists though and some of the things mentioned here are definitely reminiscent of the work that they undergo to ensure the best representation of the cooking or products they are trying to display.

Instagram seems to be all the rage but these tips are just as helpful for food bloggers or other budding photographers.

Bookatable are offering reviews and offers on all sorts of restaurants around the UK and parts of Europe. If they keep offering useful content like this then I’m sure it will help them gain readers compared to other competing sites.

I’d be interested to know your tips on Instagram food photography or indeed food photography in general.

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DJ Hype – an interview

I was asked to interview DJ Hype for a bio a while back – here’s what I learnt about the Drum ‘n’ Bass legend:

DJ Hype enters the Great Eastern Bear gallery and almost immediately, Bully, his good-looking Staffie cross, relieves himself all over a box. Hype is embarrassed and admonishes the animal with a push and a shout while we reassure him that it’s fine and this former brothel has probably seen worse. “It is a problem though because if this was someone’s house I don’t want him pissing on the shag pile, you know what I mean?”

The down to earth nature of Kevin Ford is testament to his approach. One of the pioneers of drum and bass, he has no interest in the celebrity circuit nor to become some sort of pop star but he remains one of the most well-respected and busiest DJs in the business.
“I class myself as not one of the inventors but one of the pioneers”

He started with Shut Up and Dance at the age of 13, mixing up Hip Hop and reggae in the early ’80s on a sound system he built himself.
Becoming a master at cutting and scratching, he was on MTV in 1989 representing Britain in the European Mix championships and competing in the DMC.

He was the biggest DJ on London’s most popular pirate station Fantasy Radio from 1989 to its end in 1990 while at the same time he was working as a producer with Kickin’ records where The Exorcist (his collaboration with The Scientist) reached No 1 on the MRIB Chart. “I remember hearing it on Kiss, Steve Jackson counting down, I wasn’t expecting much and then they called it out, I was quite shocked”

Despite the success with this and other tracks such as The Bee, Hype didn’t get as much credit as he felt he deserved and took the opportunity to join Suburban Base with Mark Ryder when it came up before working with Danny Donnelly on some of his biggest tracks like Shot in the Dark.

Hype won a series of awards in the mid nineties, notably in at the UK Hardcore awards where in 1994 he won Best Male DJ and in 1995 Best Radio DJ. He started at Kiss in 1994 and has been on there ever since, 18 years making him the longest running D&B radio DJ.

He signed for BMG/RCA in 1995 but didn’t want to go down the route the label was pushing him in.
“They were always asking “Where’s your live act?” but I was resisting all the things they were offering me saying “I want to keep it real, I don’t want a poster campaign, I DJ every week – that’s my live show”.

“I like being known for what I do but not for who I am. I hate the celebrity side of it. I don’t think it’s as bad these days for dance artists, but that’s if you want it and you court it.”

He tours almost constantly all over the world playing at some of the massive US festivals that Pasquale Rotella at Insomniac sets up as well as more intimate club sets.

“I enjoy the club thing, going around and spreading what I do. I’m out there every week of the year pretty much.”

“Nowadays I’m more of a self-proclaimed ambassador, I fly out and try and give them what I think is proper drum and bass, not a commercial angle to it. You know, a melting pot of it all. I’m pigeon holed in different ways but how I see myself I play true drum & bass.”

Last Christmas marked the 150th event of The Playaz at Fabric which started in 1999, making it the longest running monthly D&B night.

Of late, Hype has focused on his artists at Playaz, moving away from the production side.

“I don’t feel there is any producer that just goes on relentlessly. I got to the point where I couldn’t keep going. I had my son and a grandfather who was quite ill and I couldn’t spend the time in the studio. I do need to get back into the studio for my own career but I’m good at A & R’ing other peoples music.”

Hazard was his first signing about 10 years ago and anyone that he has collaborated with has usually done well, meaning he now has a roster of several with two or three new artists due to sign soon.
He has been working as an executive producer A&Ring, helping them to develop in their underground music, not stopping them making commercial tracks but tending to go the opposite way.

“The label is a full time job, being a DJ is a full time job and my son is a full time job. When I’m busy I complain, when I have a break then I’m like, I don’t know what to do with myself.”

He won the UMA Award Best Drum & Bass DJ in 2006
“They didn’t tell me about it – oh someone collected it for you, it took about 8 months of nagging before they had it ready for me.”

His D&B Arena mix CD in 2007 was their best selling for 4 years and he was given their Lifetime achievement award.

“At the Radio 1Xtra Xtra Bass Awards 2007 I won #1 D&B DJ. They phoned me up, ‘just letting you know you’re up for the award are you coming?’ I was like there is no way a Kiss DJ is going to win is there? Andy C was going down and he asked me to go. It was me, him and Friction and I was like, it’s going to be one of you two regardless. He said come and I was shocked, at the bar, completely drunk and I heard my name. I went up and was like thanks, catch me on Kiss and they were horrified – what do you want me to say! big up Kiss!”

Hype also did well at the National Drum and Bass Awards last year (2012), the label came second in best club night, he came second in best radio show and the label third in its category. He’s also been in the top 3 for best DJ in previous years.

“I keep telling people, I’m not old school, I’m old.”

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